ALL MEN ARE MORTAL
I was recently exchanging comments with a Dungeon of Signs reader regarding the use of dragons and other extremely scary high-level creatures in low level adventures. I'm for it
, but my interlocutor made the point (a decent one really) that for new players character death, especially a total party kill is a really discouraging thing and might discourage someone from tabletop roleplaying. This got me thinking about "Total Party Kills", and I realized that I've never run one, and never experienced one as a player, at least since returning to games as an adult. The very next time I ran a game though there was a furious animated furniture based massacre of the entire party, and everyone felt pretty good about it.
|Edger Samuel Paxson - Custer's Last Stand (1899ish)|
This general lack of 'TPKs' may seem shocking, especially as I run and play games using older systems, or retro-clones that have a reputation for being exceptionally deadly to characters (Like LOTFP - which actually has lenient death rules). It's also not to say that characters haven't died with frequency and finality in games I've run and played with - even beloved characters, nor to say that this isn't upsetting. I was quite aggrieved when my Hill Canton's character, the Eldish renegade "Tizzird" died from the single blow of a strange fractal demon thing. His replacement "Killer" Ponzi the mob enforcer is somewhat less enjoyable. Yet despite frequent character deaths, things never seem to come to the dread Total Party Kill, and I think this has a lot more to do with play-style and GM attitude then ruleset.
In the past I've suggested that the death of characters and even entire parties is positive to the tabletop roleplaying experience
- and I stand by the idea that character development is more fun when it happens through play cooperatively with setting development, and that the death of characters is part of this development. This may seem contrary to a lot of players and GM's experience, and I've seen plenty of discussions about how character death is campaign destroying. So the question becomes, why one would want a game where character death is a regular risk and how to do so without having problems or spoiling the fun of the game.
I think the why is very clear. Games are more fun when there is a way to lose or when there are setbacks, and for a story of fantasy adventure character death is a clear loss condition. It is also a way of signalling a loss that has little impact on the other players in a group. If loss results in a negative effect to a character (turned to stone, sucked into a dimension of punishment) reversing this effect or rescuing that character almost always becomes the other players' goal, unless the player whose character has been negatively effected insists otherwise. This can be a fun element of a tabletop game, but it should be rare and not the dominant result of in-game failure, because it prevents the players from completing or working on their own goals and plans.
ATTITUDE AND FAIRNESS
|The Saint of Killers is a vary boring Player Character|
One of the key things to legitimizing character death is to make sure that everyone at the table thinks it's fair, and recognizes that it's the result of informed player decision or risk taking, rather then GM fiat, trickery or malice. This means that where there is high character mortality, non-adversarial play is even more important then ever.
What do I mean by "non-adversarial play"? It's pretty simple, playing tabletop role-playing games as a cooperative game or story telling venture between everyone at the table, but especially between the GM and the players. The GM is not trying to 'get' or trick the players into losing, but rather attempting to create and environment/setting for the players to explore and adventure in. The best way to do this while including terrible monsters, deadly traps and this is to be a magnanimous GM and remember that the players are operating only based on the information you as the GM are giving them.
First it's good to assume that when a player has their character do something seemingly self-destructive (say leap into a very deep well) that they misunderstood your description. Always double check and even re-describe the danger. Something like "The well vanishes down into the blackness, it looks like a really long drop - do you really want to jump down it?" More often then not the player will reveal that they misunderstood your description (i.e. they thought the well was a five foot drop to water or something) and change their plans. If the character still does the seemingly suicidal activity, then it's not as if anyone at the table can reasonably feel the GM tricked a player into killing their character when the inevitable happens. That's being fair to one's players and it goes as far as giving the players reasonable clues about traps and how dangerous monsters appear, even when they don't specifically ask. Remember that as the GM you control the entire subjective experience of the characters. If you say "There's this big lizard in the room, and it looks cranky" the player may envision an iguana, while the GM knows this thing is closer to Godzilla. Use description, and if you're terrible at that, even provide a clear statement that the enemy is dangerous. Remember the character certainly knows a 30' long lizard can likely swallow them whole, even if the player hasn't been given enough information to recognize that fact.
Adversarial, "killer GMs" have another terrible habit beyond withholding information about dangers, they also demand that the players provide 'perfect' responses to dangers. The classic example of this is a swift moving underground stream. A killer GM will make the players roll a series of saves to avoid being swept away and drowned unless the players carefully describe their efforts to cross the stream - doffing armor, setting up ropes, using poles to prob the stream bed etc. Now a non-killer GM might make the players make the same rolls to avoid being swept away, but only after letting them know about the risks, because their characters, being competent dungeoneering types, would spot that the swift moving water was dangerous to enter without removing their armor, or taking some other precautions. GMs should assume character competence. Does a beast look diseased? The characters will notice the acidic puss dripping from its jaws, before they have to save v. death when it bites them. Does the rope bridge look ancient and frayed? The characters will notice that it might be unsafe, before plunging into the depths. Is the narrow bridge above the lava made of slick obsidan, characters will notice and cross slowly and carefully - without the player telling the GM. Again, by giving both players and characters the benefit of the doubt, and accepting that errors in player observation are most likely errors in GM description (boxed text makes this worse as often neither players nor GM pay attention to it).
This same tactic works for traps and similar engines of character destruction - the key is being consistent. Whenever a player says "I open the door" for example, I always confirm - "You reach out and grab the handle to pull it open?" Usually the player adds something else, usually about using a 10' pole with a hook on it. That means they survive some simple door traps, but are far less likely to complain when the door opens to reveal a howling vortex into the depths of space because as a GM I have been playing fair with them (howling space vortexes make for very chilly doors if you ever need to check for them).
Both of these ideas, confirming if players want to commit to potentially dangerous actions (or any serious action really) by making sure they have all appropriate information, and assuming character competence, go a long way toward making sure that player choice leads to character death not confusion, GM vindictiveness or bad GM description. Yes, as a GM you can present situations where almost all choices are deadly, and this isn't adversarial - as long as you provide hints, clues and signs of danger, and don't prey on player's failure to explain simple precautions as the mechanisms that lead to character death.
SETTING NOT STORY
More then making character death or a total party kill feel like part of the game rather then the end of the game, one needs to treat them as such. This is one of the dangers I see with narrative based campaigns. If the heroes of the story die it is very hard for the story to continue. Yes, sandbox players develop plans, discover world-wide NPC schemes and build backstory - but they do so without the baked in expectation that these elements are the focus of the campaign, and because the setting is designed around setting, not narrative, changes, including character death, are much easier to incorporate. This isn't an attack on narrative play, or it's not intended as such, and it's not something novel - Dragon's of Despair famously requires the GM to keep canonical characters alive to keep the adventure path's story moving forward. It's just that in a narrative based adventure structure (where adventure moves through a branching set of story options) character death is extremely undesirable, and forces unanticipated, drastic rewrites of the core game structure - the narrative. This seems especially true in D&D based games where the mechanics aren't really built around narrative progression as much as exploration. It may be much easier to work out in different systems that are built for narrative play.