I think I have a reputation amongst those I’ve played with as a wussy GM. I’m not necessarily a pushover, but I’ve made my opinion clear amongst other GMs that I don’t like to put my players in danger. I like to watch stories unfold as my jedi, barbarians, and shadowrunners traipse around like superheroes and demigods. If a player rolls to low on an attack, then I knock a few points off the enemies AC. Did that Stormtrooper roll 23 on 3d8 and drop a player? I ignore an entire die.
I’m not really open about this with my players, but I’m sure they’re on to something when I take longer than normal to add up a few dice. I know a lot of players and GMs would think this approach defeats the purpose of the game, and I’d agree with them. I don’t even fully believe that it leads to better storytelling. Would Lord of the Rings be better a better story if Tolkien decided the Balrog whiffed his grapple check against Gandalf? Probably not.
Sometimes I worry about playing true to the dice, but I get over it. Yet, after accidentally slaughtering my players in Gamma World I’ve been reconsidering this “friendly GM” approach. I think it could bring an interesting element to a game’s story — the total party kill.
Movies have no problem with killing off characters, and even many video games end in the death of the main character, but table top games require a much greater involvement and investment from a player. Many gamers can get over a character that falls in battle and roll a new PC, but they’d be reluctant to accept the death if it was in the service of some amateur novel the GM was living out.
But what if you gave the characters the ultimate choice. Sacrifice themselves to save the world, or give up on their quest for the chance to fight another day? Sure it’s harsh, but it would make a great transition between tiers in a 4E game. In the Playstation classic “Blood Omen,” the main character is given this very choice. While many players chose to bring balance to the world, the sequels prove that the character saved himself and led the world into centuries of darkness. Pretty hardcore, but it would blend well with a group of malicious players eager to try out some of the options in the Heroes of Shadow supplement.
But what if the PCs did sacrifice themselves? While the old character sheets find their way to the recycling bin, the new characters should benefit from the player’s previous actions. Perhaps their old character’s weapon has become a legendary artifact, or maybe the land has become richer and all the players begin the game with bonus starting funds due to the prosperity the world experienced.
It’s important that if a character dies for the sake of the story it becomes everyone’s story. The possibility of death needs to be presented up front, and everyone affected by the outcome needs to be willing. But it can add a lot to the communal story being told, and there are many possibilities to take advantage of when one or more of the characters bite it. As they say, death is only the beginning.
Full Disclosure: While searching for an appropriate image for this post, I found the totally wicked one above. It was from an article on Critical Hits by Scott Wallace that covered similar territory as this editorial, but I have no clue if it originated there. His article offers very specific scenarios you might want to consider as options on how to deal with player death, so check it out.