Why kill a PC out right?

What advantage does killing a PC actually bring to a game?

Does it add to the drama? Probably not. Does it add to the story? Again, probably not.

Imagine that a PC party is fighting a gang of orcs and the main fighter is knocked out cold and the fight goes badly. In the end the magician grabs the cleric and using long door they escape.

So what happen next?

The GM has two options. The fighter is dead and the game session pretty much ends for that player has they have to create a new character*. The rest of the party head back to town and try and recruit a new muscle man for the adventure to continue. The other option is that the character is a captive of the orcs and the remaining PCs now need to mount a rescue. The fighter is master of his own destiny to some extent and can try and engineer their own escape.

I am not suggesting for a minute that the PCs should never die. Without that threat it robs the game of some of the sense of danger. A one hit death on the other hand adds nothing. An unconscious character is maybe capable of being revived if the party have the right healing. An unconscious character is still an active part of the story. Even if they cannot talk then are a burden that needs to be carried, slowing the party and changing their tactical choices.

Sure, the orcs can kill the character, maybe even eat them, but does a random roll of 66 on the critical table need to be so fatal?

There will be times when the characters death is inevitable or even desirable and a heroic death can top off a campaign perfectly.

This is an off the peg critical:

Neck strike shatters bone and severs an artery. Foe cannot breath and is inactive for 12 rnds. The poor fool then expires.

What are the chances that the foe will live for 12 rounds? I am guessing that if it is an orc then the PCs will finish it off just to make sure of the exp. If it is a PC that has taken the critical then either some kind of Fate point will be spent which reduces the fatal result to unconscious or causes a complete re-roll or the party healer averts the death or the GM fudges the result to keep the PC alive or the PC dies.

The Fate point option just reinforces what I am thinking, that the death doesn’t add anything to the game so additional optional rules are required to fix the broken rule.

The Healer healing the wound is the perfect outcome, even more so if the healer is another PC and not a rent a medic NPC. The rent a medic is really just a walking, talking GM fudge.

If the GM fudges the result then it is just pointing to the death being ‘not fun’ and so why is it in a game?

If the critical read Neck strike shatters bone and severs an artery. Foe cannot breath and is inactive for 12 rnds the passes out. The victim will die eventually unless help arrives.

The effect during the combat is identical but the death is no longer certain. It is down to the narrator to decide what is best for the heroes story.

What I think I would love to see is a critical that reads:

Crush foe’s skull. +30 hits. Opponent dies immediately or if they are a PC then they are unconscious. Add +20 to your next swing. You have a half rnd left to act.

Yes, an entire two-tier system with the odds inevitably stacked in the heroes’ favour. Surely, we are sat around the table to tell the heroes’ story and have fun doing it?


*not all new characters are 1st level so creating an 8th level character, for example, can take a damn sight longer than just a 1st level one to re-join the party with.


10 Replies to “Why kill a PC out right?”

  1. Here I think we have a fundamental difference of philosophy. I would argue it does add to the drama and the story.

    Allow me to explain how I see it. I watch some Hollywood movies and TV shows, and I find the plot a bit predictable and bland because the hero(es) always have ‘plot armor’. You know the hero is never going to die at the start or middle of the show, nor from a stray bullet without at least being able to give a long final oration. Is that a good story? Not to me. A better story is something like Game of Thrones, where the person you think is the hero might actually really die in a terrible and unexpected way. That death might not add to the melodrama in the way you expect, but it definitely adds to the drama of the overall story. That sense that no one is immune to weapons makes the story more real and immediate to me: bad guys are more threatening, and the world seems more real and alive, when no one has plot armor. That for me makes for a more engaging game. Every victory is a cause for celebration when there is a real chance not just of defeat, but death.

    1. I do fully get where you are coming from. There is a series of books I absolutely adore, but I cannot name for spoiler reasons, where the first half of the second book of the trilogy is spent with an apprentice to the great hero learning the skills and way of life of the hero. He then stands on his own two feet and becomes independent and is killed half way through the book. It is a complete shock. The books are set in the wild west and are a novelisation of real historical journals so if people died then they die. There is no plot armour. It was real life.

      In your TV show they can kill of characters to keep you guessing because they [the screen writers] have to keep you interested in the story. If you are not interested then you will switch off. There is plot armour but you just haven’t noticed it because you are looking in the wrong direction.

      When we sit around the gaming table we do know who the heroes are. I defy anyone to honestly plan a campaign where the climax is intentionally for the PCs all to be defeated and a little noticed NPC to step forward, defeat the bad guy and carry off the prize. I can certainly remember playing in fight scenes where the GM or the dice have landed us in so much trouble that the GM has had to actively work to save the party. One GM was so bad at this that he would frequently ask you how many hit points you had left. When you got down to just 1 or 2 then you suddenly became invincible. He thought knocking you down to your last hit point was adding to the tension. It wasn’t, it became a joke amongst the players. As long as you didn’t make it obvious that you knew you were invulnerable you could use it to cut your way through swathes of the enemy. That is not what I am suggesting here.

      I don’t have a problem with death but as a GM I make life giving available. The emphasis is really on the ‘out right’ in the title. I can run real gloves off combats and the party know that there are two members carrying the life giving (one rune and one does of a herb). As long as they protect at least one of those then all is not lost. The party know defeat is a real possibility. They know their characters could be killed at any moment.

      The difference between a TV show or a book and a role playing game is that in the game the enjoyment comes from playing the game, telling the heroes story with our friends. Sending one or more players back to character creation just because of a bad roll when they have invested so much in creating that character and wanted to see them through to the natural climax does not hit my idea of fun.

      Fortunately there are as many different games as there are GMs and neither view is right or wrong.

    2. I haven’t watched Game of Thrones – I can’t see it without paying, and I can’t even keep up with the stuff I can watch for free – but I have read two and a half books.

      Halfway through the third book I stopped and I have no interest in going back. I doubt I’ll watch the TV programme now either. Almost everyone I considered heroes and had an interest in was dead. I had no real interest in reading about villains any longer.

      For me, what I want from fiction is plausibility and internal consistency. If I want depressing levels of realism – well, I’ll watch the news. I might be in a minority in this, but Game of Thrones and similar take realism too far for fiction. An occasional major character death is shocking. It continually happening is simply depressing.

  2. And if you are more A-Team than Game of Thrones, then all power to you! There’s no right way, other than the way that works best for you and your group.

    We did have a campaign once where no one died, and it was not especially exciting for us. This was a DnD 4e campaign, which we did at high level. The problem was that our characters were quite well built (‘optimized’), and so we cruised through the battles with ease. It was rare for anyone to even be knocked unconscious. And that was pretty boring, to be honest. It wasn’t the DM’s fault– he was just running the adventure as recommended — but the fact that no one was in danger of death sucked the life out of the campaign. There was no tension to the battles or elation at victory/survival. We play a combat-oriented game, so that was a big problem.

    So I don’t necessarily see killing a PC as a problem; in fact, the lack of the possibility of death has sucked the life out of campaigns in the past. I think some PC deaths give the rest a healthy appreciation of the dangers foes present, and a healthy respect for a well-earned win.

    I don’t see killing a PC as the moment when the demands of the narrative collide with luck. Rather, I see it as an element of the narrative — it is just that we have a more ‘realist/fantasy Vietnam’ style narrative, rather than a comic book or traditional fantasy narrative.

    1. I’m firmly in Hurin’s camp here. PC deaths certainly add to campaigns, and I say this having one of my 20+ level characters die in a game where I was a player. It added greatly to the story and added to the plot. Franky, I find games where PCs don’t die boring…and I say that both as a player and a GM. Your style of game may work for you and your party, but that doesn’t mean it’s universally applicable. In non-fantasy games the threat of death is one major factor in adventures and plots, and if you take that out there’s really no point.

      1. I have never actually tried this. I am just throwing ideas out there. I have been working ideas out for my kids version and in that game there will be no death.

        It was just an interesting idea or so I thought. As I said above, I kill characters in a no holds barred manor but the characters themselves have the power of life giving to mitigate that risk. There are of course 5 PCs and only 2 chances at life giving. It is a bit russian roulette if they get too reckless.

        1. It is a good idea for a kids game, or for groups that find the possibility of unexpected deaths unfun. I didn’t mean to rain on that parade!

          1. That is the beauty of RPGs. There are no right or wrong answers and there are no bad ideas. It is just what works for our individual groups.

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