Behind the Screen – Chapter 13: Player Deaths

Rocks fall…you die.

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I thought my 13th chapter would one the most appropriate one to talk about DEATH. But when I say death, I mean PC death, that inevitable event when a player’s most loved character gets brutally slaughtered, or just falls off a cliff, either way.

I must define that I’m not talking about death due to combat. That is a different kettle of fish. This is more about narrative death. The situations where the GM will, for completely relevant and necessary reasons, cause a character to expire while outside of a combat situation.

To use this can be a very fickle thing indeed, because depending on the situation it could cause much anger. A person who has been playing a character for an extended period of time or who has invested significant amounts of time and work to make that character grow into something beyond just a mere piece of paper, will likely get upset if one day, suddenly and without warning, the character gets mashed by a rock slide or collapsing cavern ceiling. I know this personally.

When including narrative death within a session, there are many things one must consider. The style of the game is the first. A classic fantasy game, such as Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder are built to be so open that anything can be used within them. On the other hand, a game like Grimm, where the players control children, would not particularly suit narrative death. With Call of Cthulhu, it is almost expected for at least one person to die or go insane per campaign. So one must consider whether narrative death fits within the scope of the game.

Of course, the story (or setting) presented within the game is also a defining factor. You could be running a game utilising the Pathfinder rules, but in a My Little Pony setting (yes, it exists), so narrative death is very much an unlikely thing. A humorous setting does not preclude narrative death; there are many ways in which a death can be made funny. I am reminded of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie (the movie before the TV series, much better in my opinion) where the character Amilyn (played by Paul Reubens) was staked, but took several minutes to die, walking around in the background, moaning, kicking walls and so on.

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Being that I am calling this ‘narrative death’, the story must be the reason why the death occurs. I’ll give an example. I was running a Call of Cthulhu game with a pre-made scenario. It could have been one of those located within the 6th edition rulebook, but I don’t exactly remember. At one point, the investigators were located within a farmhouse. There was runic warding inscribed around all the entrances to the building, and several mutilated corpses outside. Horrific noises were also heard outside, but nothing could be seen.

One player decided his character would go outside. Almost immediately, the character was set upon by an invisible monstrosity and torn to pieces, just as the scenario told me to do. It was part of the overall narrative, so it made sense to me, but the player was not very happy about the whole situation. He still hassles me about it every now and again. (I didn’t even get a saving throw! – Ed)

I’ve learnt from that experience, and I now know how to use narrative death more effectively, even if it is something I do not utilise very often.

So, moving on from that, the people you play with are also a large consideration. Some people are more receptive to this sort of thing than others, especially those who focus on the story more than anything else. If players are made aware that narrative death could be a possibility within the story, they may not put so much effort into detailing the character, and thus are not as affected if narrative death does occur. From my point of view, as a player and as a GM, if the death fits and furthers the story, then I have no issue.

RocksFall001Making the death fit into and further the story can be a difficult thing to write. There have been few times where I have written scenarios where narrative death could be used at all. I’ve not used narrative death at all in Pathfinder or D&D (that I can recall) but I have used it in Call of Cthulhu (either death or permanent insanity, which equates to the same thing), beyond the story I related earlier. But in those circumstances, they were single run scenarios with pre-made characters that the players held no sentimentality towards, so they cared not what happened to the characters through-out and after the scenario. So if the player is sentimental about the character, make sure the death of said character is meaningful, plausible and fitting. There is little worse than the loss of a character for no good reason.

Remember that a narrative death does not have to be something you spring on your players. It can be something organised between a player and the GM, to add something extra to a session to liven things up or to bridge some point in the story that was becoming difficult. The player working with the GM is probably the best way to work out a narrative death. This way both parties are happy with what is happening, and no one gets angry. This can sometimes be beneficial to the player. Perhaps they are unhappy with the way the character has evolved, and a death can lead to a couple of different things. Either the player gets to build a whole new character better suited to their play style or something that seems more interesting, or if the character gets resurrected, then perhaps the death has had some sort of profound mental effect that changes the personality of the character significantly. For example, a dead fighter is resurrected, turns to the relevant God, forsaking the fighting ways and taking clerical vestments instead. Or, alternately, the dying process of a character could show them the Gods show no interest in mortal life whatsoever, and they turn evil.

Another way in which narrative death can be achieved without player involvement, like above, is to give the players a situation where one of them would need to sacrifice themselves in order to prevent a party wipe. This may also result in rage, depending on how it is done. If you say to the players “one of you has to die to save the rest”, expect a backlash. But if you devise a situation where they come to that realisation of their own accord, that they think it is their own idea, they are less likely to be quite so annoyed. If, for whatever reason, you (as a GM) are targeting or trying to eliminate a certain character, this is obviously not the ideal method.

While a narrative death can be an important part of a scenario, it need not be a permanent thing, nor even a real thing, if you do it right. In many games, dead characters can be brought back to life through various resurrection methods. If the PCs do not possess the ability or resources to do this, then the GM can supply them as another part of the story. Otherwise, death of a character could be implied, but not specifically stated, such as being consumed whole or falling into what appears to be a massively deep pit. One would assume that death, in those circumstances, is inevitable, but things could occur that could save the character at a later point.

RockfallReplacement characters can follow normal creation rules, but it also gives the opportunity for the player to work with the GM to come up with something more interesting. The new character could be a younger sibling, child or other relative of the dead. Motivations could be things like revenge or idealization. A whole slew of possibilities arises when the GM and player work together in this fashion, more than would normally happen at normal character creation (unless those 2 persons get together then as well).

The main thing a GM should avoid is to purposefully kill characters for no reason, or a rubbish reason. A role playing game is generally not GM vs Players, so a GM going out of their way to kill characters isn’t something that generally shouldn’t be done. Of course, the good thing about RPG’s is that it can mean anything to any person. Some groups get their kicks from making an RPG into a competitive experience, whereas other are in it for the story, and yet still others are about getting the loot and leveling up. Using narrative death is a powerful tool that needs careful planning to not cause rage amongst the group. We will all make mistakes with this; it is inevitable. But hopefully we can learn from any mistakes, and if you are lucky, one of your group is an RPG veteran and can assist you and let you know what you did wrong and how to approach it next time.

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