GM Struggles

Struggles, wins and losses of a gamer

Save vs Death or Safe from Death

Minifig Characters #6: Death

Minifig Characters #6: Death (Photo credit: minifig)

“It’s completely OK to run games where you flat out tell people “Your characters in this game will not die unless you do something immensely stupid or you say out loud that you’re willing to take the risk”.

Saves a lot of hassle.”

From: RPG.net user KemperBoyd

This is an interesting take to things. I always thought there is no real reason for conflict if there is no risk of death, but truth is, conflict has meaning if failure means something. Death is just the end of a good character, of a personal story, it might be the appropriate failure, sure, but it is hardly the one and only meaningful choice or good story one can tell.

The way I see it, it is always hard to keep a game fun and interesting if we focus on a single option, this is the stuff railroading is bad for, if a single plot, a single way of bypassing, a single ending is all you got, then your game lacks possibility right? Same goes for death. The very same thread has some other very good advice that elaborates on this general idea:

1. It’s more fun to torment a PC then to kill him/her, so it’s best to do so.

So… your old wyrm dragon crit against the thief. The thief only has single digit hit points left. By all rights, that thief is dead. It’s far more fun to have the dragon literally bite the thief’s arm off, swallowing the arm, sword and all, in one quick snap, and then tell the thief that he swoons and the world turns black. Tell the other PC’s that the thief seems to be bleeding out quickly, and just leave it at that.

Later, after the battle is done, let the PCs come up with plan to either have the thief’s arm reattached (if recovered from the belly of the beast intact), OR let them come up with some idea or plan on getting the thief a new arm.

In otherwords, if you have a PC dead to rights, take your pound of flesh, but increase the drama by leaving the PC alive.

2. Some things are worse then death to a PC, avoid them.

In the above case, of a PC thief loosing an arm, it would be a case worse then death to leave the situation indefinately. Within the same session, or in the very next one, give the party hope that it can be corrected relatively quickly. In other words, don’t gimp a PC or the party for long – nothing’s worse then being forced to play a crippled and ineffective character for long.

In a recent game, one of my PC’s lost her left hand. She had been snatched by something akin to an alien from the Alien franchise, and was being dragged up an elevator shaft. The only other PC there was busy using his TK abilities, and pointed at the alien and yelled at the NPC corporal to “Shoot that thing!”… I rolled a fumble. So I decided that he shot her right through the hand while the alien was trying to toss her up to the other aliens. So she was thrown clumisly up the shaft as the shock of a laser pulse went through her hand, her hand was splashed with alien blood (non acidic, but infectiously invasive, which started to turn her into one of them), her hand was exposed to vacuum, and then the vacsuit’s emergency foam deployed to seal the vac leak, which of course got the foam resin hardening right in through the wound. After a harrowing fight (which I had another chance to kill her outright that I passed up) in the elevator shaft, they finally retrieved her, and they fled. The next session, she had a nearly useless hand – but managed to fight off the infection and keep from turning into a critter. The session after that, she finally had the hand amputated and replaced with a cyberhand… and started developing her own unique brand of psi abilities. The game ended too early, but if we’d continued, she would have eventually learned that the infection was still present, but non-progressive. She had formed a symbiosis with the normally parasitic alien germ… but the whole point here is that it would not have been fun to the PC or party if I had kept her from getting a new hand relatively quickly, OR left her to turn into an alien (without the PC’s permission that is – 3. Sometimes PC’s actually like having horrible and permanent things happen, but as the GM, you should get the player’s input and permission first).

I thought the above was far more interesting and satisfying to all of us then just killing her outright when I had the chance.”

This logic is the way to go! Evolving from a failure is always important, the world is changed, the characters deal with its result, you don’t undo the failure, you get around or work through it. And even though death is not the only option, going overboard on a character might just make the player want it to have died, and that is a lot worse than having it dead on the spot.

The reason is simple: the player and GM have to trust each other, the GM shouldn’t impose something the player is not ok with because  that will just force a new character, but unlike death coming from a conflict, no players I have known like when the choice for a new character seems to be forced upon them by the GM, the feeling it is premature and unfair just permeates everything.

I am probably gonna talk to my players about this and make it clear to them that I want death as an option but not the sole one, I will make it clear that they won’t die for just anything, their deaths will have meaning in the game, either because it is dramatically appropriate or because they did something incredibly stupid, so when death is not on the table I will improvise the results and present them a chance to repair the damage, although at a cost.

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4 responses to “Save vs Death or Safe from Death

  1. undreren December 13, 2012 at 10:02

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that death should be meaningful. Character death shouldn’t come up very often in most games, but when it does, it MUST meaningfully impact the story, and they MUST take actions themselves to make this sacrifice. Otherwise it will often just be a hollow “punishment”. Of course, in some games, character deaths are sometimes almost REQUIRED. These games naturally follow different rules.

    Telling players beforehand that their characters won’t die unless it’s meaningful is great. Telling them their character can die because of stupidity is not as great. Often times, players will do incredibly stupid things. My experience is that they do this, not because the player isn’t thinking straight, but rather that they perceive the situation differently than the GM. I find that the optimal solution is to tell the player that his actions might have fatal consequences before even ALLOWING him to take said actions. This prevents a fair amount of misunderstanding.

    Wonderful post though, just my thoughts :)

    • Nifelhein December 13, 2012 at 10:39

      I agree with you, my idea is that I will always make sure we are on the same page, that he is assuming the chance of death before the actions happen.

      The upside is that hardly ever death will be a frustration. Thanks for stopping by, I hope you enjoy this blog.

      • undreren December 13, 2012 at 20:02

        I face the same problems as you. Like you, I believe myself to be a mediocre to somewhat “bad-under-pressure” as a GM, but I really like being the GM anyway. I also desperately want to get better at it. And I love Dungeon World ;)

  2. Nifelhein December 13, 2012 at 22:45

    We do have a lot in common then. ;)

    First step: acceptance, now lets work on the others, shall we?

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