Sunday, July 26, 2009

5 Tips for Dealing With PC Death

It's a dirty dark Dungeon Master secret that we don't actually want to kill PCs. Many Dungeon Masters, especially new ones, when faced with a character on the verge of death will bend reality itself to keep them alive, or grant them a swift resurrection by their God or some other divine force. As an experienced DM will quickly point out though, without a fear of death in the world, a campaign can very quickly go off it's hinges.

Dungeons and Dragons, and many other tabletop games, already call for a certain suspension of belief but if - despite a combat-heavy game - your players know that you'll swoop in and save them every time they near death, things will go... downhill.

Your players may begin taking foolhardy actions, attack without thinking, and generally disregarding planning or tactics. A certain recipe for disaster indeed...

To expand on a point I made in yesterday's post, character deaths should be taken seriously and given weight. Here are some tips to make character deaths a more meaningful part of your story.

1. Talk About It Beforehand

One of the best ways to deal with a character death is to preemptively have talked about the possibilities of death with your players. Explain that characters do die and that it's an essential part of any proper campaign. Also, it's good to explain why death needs to be a factor of the game. Remind them that adventuring is a dangerous profession, and that it wouldn't be fair to them as players if you cheated so that they could survive.

It's also good to lay out the house rules for what will happen if a character should die. Obviously, immediately following the character's death, the player will probably have to sit out for the rest of the battle. Explain ahead of time that this is a possibility and this fact won't weigh you down too much mid-battle.

2. Control the Mood

The moment a character dies, especially if it's the first death in your campaign, the mood of your game (or at least your session) should shift drastically. Your job as the DM probably won't be to create a change of mood, since your players (especially the one who just lost a character) will probably be moody enough as it is, but rather the control the mood.

When a character dies, things you might see include:

> Players becoming uncomfortable
> The player in question getting upset
> Players checking frantically over character sheets
> Players raising up torches and pitchforks.

It's important that you control the sudden tension, depression, and rebellion that's sweeping over all your players at once. The best way you can do this is to immediately take control of the situation. I usually put the game on pause for a moment and speak directly to the player involved, asking "before I play out your death scene, are you sure that you've done all the math correctly?" Everyone at the table typically pours over their character sheets to check for any magical ability or item they have that might have stopped the death - usually there isn't one, but it's good to check before you continue.

Following this - it's good to steer the emotions that the rest of the table is feeling into combat. Players may be frustrated and upset to the point where the best option in your mind might be to take a break. In reality, the emotions caused by a character death can more often then not be filtered into an emotional climax to a battle, causing it to actually be one the characters enjoy.

The first step to doing this is to put the numbers out of your head for a second and to give the character a memorable "death scene". Consider your favorite fantasy movie when a main character dies - think Boromir's death scene in the LOTR movies (go watch it if you haven't seen it). Describe in detail the valiant death of a hero.

If you use a soundtrack for your game (which everyone should), before the campaign even starts you should select a death theme. My death theme is "Beauty Killed the Beast I" from the King Kong Movie Soundtrack (works very well trust me). Something emotional is perfect, especially if it breaks the upbeat fighting songs you've been using for the battle up to this point.

The reason I love Beauty Killed the Beast I is that one minute into the song drums start playing. The feel you're going for here is not unlike the death scene in movies where all the characters are screaming but the actual sound is muted and all you can hear is the music. Once your description of the death scene ends, continue on with the battle.

Now that you have turned the death of a character into a powerful part of the story, the players should have shivers running up their spine because... sh*t just got real.

3. Bolster Their Companions

In fantasy movies, there's no such thing as a TPK. Why? Well, because that would make for a fairly cruddy movie. More importantly though, the heroes are bolstered by the sight of the fallen comrade.

Cries of "I will avenge you!" and "You shall not have died in vain!" echo through the battlefield as the heroes call forth some inner reservoir of gumption previously considered unattainable. Suddenly they are better archers, braver warriors, and able to muster more powerful magics then ever before.

Is it adrenaline? Magic? No one really knows, but it makes for a damn fine action sequence - and who are we to question it. The question is, can we harness this raw power into a tabletop campaign? Of course you can!

How you choose to give the still-standing characters that extra oomph is up to you - whether through bonuses, increased stats, an extra second wind... It's wise to not make the benefit anything too extraordinary, or PCs might start killing each other just for the bonuses! Make it a small bonus that lasts for the remainder of the battle however, and not only will this encourage your players to avenge their fallen comrade, but it will make the fallen PC feel useful and lessen the chances of one of those icky TPKs.

4. Clearly Explain The Options

When a player loses a character and has to sit out of the session for a little bit, it's good to have options for them to consider, so they don't feel up a creek without a paddle when their character kicks the bucket (too many metaphors?).

For example, I usually give my players three options. One, they can do nothing and hold out for resurrection. If a player gets really frustrated this is usually the option they pick because if resurrection isn't an option in the near future they can leave the session early.

Two, they can take up the role of an NPC temporarily while they await resurrection. This gives the party a little more wiggle room in terms of leaving a fellow player hanging, and may be the best option if they're in the middle of a quest far away from resurrection.

Three, the player can make a new character, or take on an NPC permanently. This choice usually cuts off the opportunity for resurrection, and is used if resurrection is unlikely, the player wants to bring in a new character, or for whatever reason the character wouldn't come back even if raised.

Obviously, the options available to your players are up to you. You can explain the options ahead of time to your players, or pull them aside and discuss them following the battle or encounter in which they died. Both of these are probably good ideas. No matter how you disperse the information, make sure your players know that they do have options. You should never have a character death mean a player has to leave the campaign, make sure to plan ahead and ensure that even death won't exclude a player from at least some level of involvement with the game for too long.

5. Sidequest: The Afterlife

In many fantasy tabletop games, like Dungeons and Dragons, the game will actually in some way explain what happens to people after they die - usually dealing with some sort of afterlife, or traveling to another plane of existence to see one's God. If your game allows for it, I strongly suggest utilizing this!

Nothing dulls the pain of having a character shuffle off this mortal coil then a personal side quest, right?

Pull the player aside for a few minutes and throw them a small roleplaying encounter as they meet their deity. If you're feeling generous and they have reason to be in their God's favor, have the deity offer to answer a question of theirs. Even this small personal attention can help a player deal with a character dying because they actually get a small reward.

If an afterlife doesn't exist in your game, there are many ways to still entertain a player. For example, you could offer their character a dream or cutscene revealing something that the rest of the party doesn't know. If you are playing in a campaign where the character has no chance of returning, this step isn't as vital, but in a fantasy campaign a brief meeting with their God before pitching a character for good is still a wise idea.

If you want to take a page from my book, utilize Death Packets! Essentially, what a Death Packet is, is a few pre-written pages tailored to each of the PCs in my Dungeons and Dragons campaign. It includes a short story detailing their character's spirit as it travels to their home plane and what they see. I usually end the story with them being beckoned into their deity's chamber to speak with their God or Goddess. I also include in the packet a list of their options now that their character has died.

What the Death Packet allows me to do quite easily is entertain a player after their character died. It gives them something to read over as the battle continues onward, and something to think about. Once the battle ends, I can pull them aside and flesh out the conversation between them and their deity, now that the preliminary story is done with.

Given, the incorporation of Death Packets takes a lot of preparation, but it's worth it. If there's anything players like, it's getting their own personalized handouts that no one else can read - and it certainly dulls the pain of death, even making a character's death exciting in some ways. "Yes! I get to read my death packet now!"

Aside from a player's options, and the short story surrounding their character passing on to the afterlife, there's really no limit to what you can put in a Death Packet. Visions, dreams...

In Kobold Quarterly #10 (which I recently reviewed) they have an article on death feats and flaws for your character (only attainable after being resurrected). I've included information like that in Death Packets as well, giving players some interesting character development or advancement options that are only open to them now that they've died.

Again, giving a player some extra toys to play with and essentially rewarding them for dying can go a long way to cheering them up.

Well, those are my tips for dealing with PC death. As you might imagine I've had to deal with it a lot. Initially, the death of a PC is always a terrifying prospect, but if you are properly prepared to deal with the fallout, the entire scenario can actually be turned into a powerful and memorable moment in your campaign. So, don't fear death - just be prepared for it!


Anonymous said...

As usual, useful advice.

Character death is a tricky subject, as you say, a difficult balance. Making a killing blow almost fatal in a dramatic way is a challenge. As you advise, talking with the players to set expectations is good. Some players will not mind having a character lose an eye or hand instead of dying, as long as there is a way to overcome it through play, as it gives a good roleplaying hook.

But different players have different expectations from games so finding out what they are is important.

Storyteller said...

Thanks for the comment!

Your comment actually raises an interesting thought. I'd never considered presenting an alternative character punishment in place of death. If your group is more opposed to characters dying, or if you wanted a less lethal campaign I could easily imagine maybe even writing up a chart of "death effects". Things like losing a limb, or taking a permanent physical penalty, with just a small chance of death every time you actually die.

But yes, I suppose use of such a thing would be totally dependent on the type of group and expectations of your players.

RLS said...

I think one of your more brilliant DM'ing moments was allowing Chris's bard to come back as a wanna-be ghost. Not only was that incredibly fun, but it made for some really bizarre gameplay factors later in the game. I don't know that any DM can get away with that very often, but I appreciate the brilliance there.

You also avoided the character he would have made if that choice hadn't been there: Gurgthack the Bard-Barian! I don't think anyone really want to see that.

Storyteller said...

@RLS - Haha, that was definitely fun. At the low level you guys were at his death was really unfortunate. I'm happy that I could keep things going in a fun way :)