Friday, July 23, 2010

On Killing PCs


Okay, I'll give you a bit more than that.  Fine.  Be that way.

Let me first qualify 'death.'  When I say a character is 'dead,' I mean 'unplayable.'  I do not mean 'mildly inconvenienced' (hi, Epic Level!)  I do not even mean 'significantly inconvenienced' (level loss, etc).  I mean 'open up the character builder and start choosing stats.'

As a DM, I have a mixed relationship with inflicting death upon Player Characters.  On the one hand, I want people to be responsible for their actions, and for consequences to be realistic.  I want there to be a sense of danger in combat, and a thrill when a monster's attack narrowly misses or a key save is made.

On the other, people do not like having their characters die.  Players get understandably attached to their characters.  They should.  If they don't get invested in their characters, the campaign (or at least any 'role playing' therein) is likely to suck.  But, of course, this attachment also means that it's difficult for me to kill their beloved characters, even if that's simply how the dice fall.  I'm not there to emotionally scar my players, I'm there to have fun with them, after all (though some DMs might take a different stance on the issue of whether or not emotional scarring constitutes fun).

So, historically, I have made compromises.  There have been three fatalities during my two campaigns, and none have stuck.  I'm not entirely happy about this fact, and while I'd like to rationalize each of my decisions, the fact is that, historically, I've been unwilling to actually take the hard line I espouse in theory on character death.

Monster Power Cards, which clearly define the abilities that monsters have to the players, are one step in the right direction.  If monster abilities are more static, I think death seems less arbitrary, and "fairer," even if from all functional standpoints, I still control what abilities the monsters have.  Players seem to be more bothered by the DM coming up with something on the spot than with regular unbalanced design, and I'm happy to accomodate this preference.  I think the Joker had some good stuff to say about this idea in The Dark Knight.

The 'Table of Messy Results,' which substitutes gross bodily injury for actual death (most of the time), is another helpful tool.  Having a character greviously injured provides a challenge to overcome (for the player and the character) as a penalty for failure.  It might require a change in direction for a character's development, but I'd say that's a good (or at least interesting) thing.

I also hope that having more experienced players will lead them to accept the results of their actions, and more importantly, lead me to be willing to follow through on those consequences.  I hate the thought of being the douchebag DM who turns the newbie's first three characters into bloody stains because he or she happened to be (understandably) genre blind.  Yes, many people learned to play this way.  Yes, 'back in your day, you didn't have no fancy healing surges.  You had 1d4 hit points and a rock.  And you had to share the rock.'  Yes, I'll get off of your lawn.  If it's nobody's first rodeo, though, I think I'd have less pangs of guilt about smacking PCs for making foolhardy, misinformed, or just plain unfortunate decisions.

In the end, though, it really is on me deciding to stand by the ideals I've put forth numerous times on the subject.  Anyone have any insight on this?  I'm always open to hearing new ideas regarding this tricky subject.



  1. I touched on this briefly in my last DH post, but I pretty much agree with you. I'm all for consequences for all actions, even if they're minor: for instance, Rome tapping a commissar on the shoulder. Definite no-no. Likewise, if someone made a huge error, say someone had decided to charge the Broodlord in close combat, I would have been less hesitant to have the Broodlord maul him (which, as you can imagine, would have been easy). And if Aaron Perils, well, I don't have a way to step in and stop that.

    The problem is, as you stated, attachment. I even forced you all to be very thorough in character creation, and got attached to all your characters as well. It's sort of a double-bladed sword: if you were to kill a PC in the first couple sessions, they're not as attached, but also probably likely to be annoyed their character died so soon. If they were to die later, there's been much more invested in the character, and they'd be likewise annoyed. If you're setting up encounters to be challenging, though, there /should/ always be that threat of death, since the NPCs should be able to kill the PCs should they not play well enough.

    It's an interesting question regarding Shaima, who I assume was one of those 3 fatalities you discussed. Obviously I'm happy with how that turned out, but I have a hard time imagining how I would have reacted had he stayed dead. I suppose if there's a time to go, taking out the Big Bad is it, and had he died and Tesh'atar still died, I suspect I would have been overall ok with how it ended. It definitely was a shock though, but that's how it should have been.

    I want to play Dark Heresy as realistic as possible, but I don't want it overly grimdark in that you walk around a corner and die to an ambush. What I may end up doing it is using the Critical Hits tables a lot, which is DH's built-in Messy Results. I think the thing is I feel differently about a character dying due to an unluckily high roll by an NPC vs. a character dying because of a choice he himself made. It's a narrow one, and I wouldn't be surprised if I end up like you and pull my punches a bit, but it's an excellent point to consider (as evidenced by how much I just wrote).

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  3. To add to this discussions (but not really) when I was talking to Emma about the session, she asked me first whether I had killed anybody, then if I had seriously injured anybody, and was seriously disappointed I hadn't done either and went on to suggest several horrible things I could do to you all.

    Point being, don't ever ask Emma to DM unless you want to shatter this whole debate :-P

  4. Heh, good thing #4 didn't have time to charge that Broodlord, then.

    Thank you Inquisitor Badassius!

    Removed and reposted because that typo was annoying the sh*t out of me.

  5. (Jumping in days after it's been written, hurr hurr)

    Hey! Dying against a bloodthirsty xeno in defense of ones Lord in combat ASSURES personal redemption, at least as far as #4 has thought it out. Which, in truth, wasn't very far (the music in his head WAS pretty loud, after all), but still, his heart was in it.

    When it comes to PC death, I appreciate the not-being-killed-by-falling-rocks. However, if one of our characters isn't smart enough to know NOT to charge a six-armed alien killing machine, I'd assume he/she (ok, he) will be content with the consequences, no matter how grimdark they may be. This may be my love of creating new characters talking, but as long as PC death doesn't mean expulsion from the campaign or the plot, I'd be fine with letting the rules stand alone. Hell, sometimes it can make things easier. If Verston had died in that last ditch effort to kill Anasta, and in his own death as her phylactery ensured her cessation of existence, I think he'd have been fairly satisfied (even if I wouldn't have been).

    This isn't to say that the extra chances and substitute consequences aren't appreciated, or that they shouldn't be in place; only that, if a player wants his/her character to survive forever, he/she shouldn't be sending them into the Tomb of Horrors/Eye of Terror. Risks should be risky, Epic level-ness by damned.

    There's a reason only one being in existence has ever had everything go Just As Planned (if you even believe the treacherous agents of Chaos), and the rest of us have to live with our characters' mortality.