Worlds of Design: The Four Laws of Character Death

A problem that I have in GMing RPGs, and I imagine a lot of other people have, is reluctance to kill characters that players have become strongly attached to. I'll describe my evolution in how I have dealt with this.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

The Law of Survivability
In its early days Dungeons & Dragons was intended to be played with a single character per person, with hirelings to beef the party up to a reasonable number. That number was closer to eight than to the four we saw in D&D third edition. Those numbers make a big difference, as "Lew's Law of Survivability" is intended to illustrate:

The survivability of a party varies with the square of the number of characters in it.


Note: this is about survivability of the entire party, but that should enhance individual survivability. The numbers are relative, that is, a party of 3 (3 squared = 9) is one quarter as survivable as a party of 6 (squared = 36).

The Law of Single Characters
And if a player has only one character, the GM is much less likely to allow that character to die, as I indicate in "Lew's Law of Single Characters”:

The more a player focuses on just one character, the harder it is for the GM to have that character die."


Hirelings earned half experience, and if the principal character got killed it was usually possible for the player to become one of the hirelings.

In those early days we didn't make up detailed backgrounds for characters. Sometimes they didn't even have names to begin with, as we let what happened in the first several adventures define the character and suggest a name. We were quite game oriented and not nearly so much story oriented.

I was the original GM in our group, but I wanted to play as well as GM, so I encouraged other players to learn to GM. This led in a large group to players using characters in the campaigns of several GMs at the same time. Hirelings per se were entirely dispensed with. Sometimes a player played two characters when there were not enough players to make a party of at least six and as many as eight. In some cases the players who regularly gamemastered got to play a second character while those who did not GM played just one—gamemaster privilege. There was always a “overall GM” who was in charge in case screwy things happened (which usually involved one GM giving too much "stuff" away).

Today we find many players who are much more interested in story than game, and who want to make a mark on the campaign with the story of their character. This frequently means that the player devises (usually with approval from the GM) an elaborate backstory for their character. I have never done this because it slows down the initial games, and I prefer to get people playing the game rather than worrying about the individual non-game details of their character, especially when there's a significant chance that the newbie characters will be killed with little hope of resurrection.

The Law of Character Generation
I've also seen that the more time a player puts into a character, the more incentive there is for the GM to keep that character alive. Hence "Lew's Law of Character Generation":

The longer players take to generate characters, the less likely those characters are to die.


The Law of Imposed Stories
A strong corollary to the GM telling the players a story is that hardly any character will ever be killed - unless in service of the story. Hence "Lew's Law of Imposed Stories”:

The more a GM treats their RPG campaign as storytelling session, the less likely it is that a character will die.


To go back to the original point, my solution is to get characters into a game as fast as possible—which also seems to be the strategy in D&D fifth edition—while allowing players more than one character when that's appropriate. When players have several characters gradually progressing there are two benefits: it takes much longer (in real time) for players to reach higher levels, and if a player's character dies that player has several others to play, and he/she is not devastated the way they would have been with just one character.

I know that with the experience we have among the readers there have been other solutions to this, and I hope you'll reveal how you’ve coped with the "problem" of character death.[/excerpt][/excerpt]
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I don't think anything is particularly "wrong" in this analysis...but it is a bit short-minded.

That is...it seems to presume that semi-random "difficulty-based" character death is a good thing, or at least the preferred thing (e.g. "..my solution..."). I don't think it is. It certainly can be, and I've had fun with those games, but it doesn't have to be. Sometimes I think the attitude displayed is like the "redshirt" deaths in the old Star Trek show. Why did newly-introduced Lieutenant Jones have to die?...to show you how serious this threat is. Why did Fighter 2 die?... to show you what a tough DM this guy is.
So does that mean your preference is no death at all, or that the odds of dying should be evenly spread between the redshirts and the PCs (i.e treat them all the same)?

My own preference is the latter.
 

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prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
So does that mean your preference is no death at all, or that the odds of dying should be evenly spread between the redshirts and the PCs (i.e treat them all the same)?

Those aren't strictly contradictory ideals, there. You could prefer not to kill characters but still run lethal-ish encounters, let the dice fall where they may, and let the redshirts and PCs live or die depending on the dice.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Those aren't strictly contradictory ideals, there. You could prefer not to kill characters but still run lethal-ish encounters, let the dice fall where they may, and let the redshirts and PCs live or die depending on the dice.
They're close to contradictory, though, in that the first choice is deaths or no deaths; after which on choosing deaths=yes comes a second choice of whether the death chances are skewed in favour of the PCs surviving more often than random chance would dictate, or not.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
One thing about party size, a large party is more survivable but it also lowers the experience gain per character which increases the time to level up which balances out the higher lethality of smaller parties :D My players weren't too fond of henchmen because of the experience loss. The problem was finding the sweet spot between party size and experience gain. Sometimes that depended on the classes the PCs played. A dungeon heavy in undead favored Clerics back in the day thanks to "turn undead". A dungeon with areas wider than the typical 10' wide corridor needed more fighters, etc.

As for character generation time, that's really more about game design imo. In original D&D in took very little time. PCs died, often :) But, they were easy to generate. I noticed how long it took to generate a 3E character, but they were much more survivable. I prefer somewhat faster character generation with significant chances of death. It's a balance. I loved Traveller. It kind of evaded this issue. It combined very lethal game mechanics with a character generation system that was fun if fairly involved. You didn't notice how long you were out of the game, because you were having fun making a new character :D

I run a sandbox game. It is moderately lethal, but character generation is relatively short. I've had players plow through several decent characters in fairly short order, then hit a character who just seems to click and survive. Sometimes PC death is about the player / play style as much as the game. When they find the "right" character for how they play they tend to survive.

As for "imposed stories", well as I said my game is a sandbox. There are adventures / story lines buried in that sand but I don't force my players hands. They choose their course. So, no story reason to keep them alive :D Or kill them either.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
They're close to contradictory, though, in that the first choice is deaths or no deaths; after which on choosing deaths=yes comes a second choice of whether the death chances are skewed in favour of the PCs surviving more often than random chance would dictate, or not.

That's fair. It's certainly true that the idea of ... preferring to kill the NPCs (or, I suppose the PCs) is kinda meaningless if you're not going to kill anyone. And you can (as I think we agree) run a low-lethality campaign that nonetheless makes no distinction between PCs and NPCs as regards death.
 

G

Guest 6801328

Guest
When I played as a teenager in the early 80's the DM rarely killed our characters.

But the players killed each other with disturbing frequency.
 

Ratskinner

Adventurer
So does that mean your preference is no death at all, or that the odds of dying should be evenly spread between the redshirts and the PCs (i.e treat them all the same)?

My own preference is the latter.

I can go either way. I would just want the DM* to be up front about it, since D&D has rules-wise historically been incapable of making up its mind. What I was objecting to is the idea that one way is somehow categorically either "better" or "the way its supposed to be."

*Since this whole discussion seems to be predicated on D&D. There are other games which don't have a problem picking one or the other, and plenty more which inherit D&D's dysphoria this way.
 

Hoffmand

Explorer
With basically one exception* we never really played that way. We never viewed PCs as expendable.

So different people had different experiences.

*which was a kill them all even if it's just a "by the way your PC is dead because I just rolled a d6 and you were 6th in line" session.

mad weren’t into summoning spells for the same reason. We did not want to summon a critter to send him to die. In fact we don’t like the current way of playing Where they don’t really die and just go back to their own plane. We want the caster to think of the critter summoned can win. It was an evil action to deliberately send a summoned critter to death.
 

Psikerlord#

Explorer
Character death is not a problem, it is desirable (essential, even?). For good gameplay you need real danger. You can have the most awesome preplotted story in the world... but No danger = No fun = Players get bored and campaign folds after two sessions. If your PC dies early or mid session, take over a hireling, or make up a new PC, or help the GM run the monsters for a bit. Make a new PC between now and next session. No biggie.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Heh. It's funny, the game that @lewpuls describes back in the early days is exactly how we played. It wasn't until years later that I met people who figured that a group should only have one GM.
Even up to me quitting during 3.5E, my table was 6 DM 7 Players no waiting. And no finishing a campaign.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
I laugh at your laws, they just highly recommended suggestions.

Suggestion of Survivability. Hirelings is what you got if you made it to name level. If six of us were at the table, Bob and Joe ran two pcs. Yes, their pcs were generally relatives or best buddie for life. But once the second pc died, we were looting the dead corpse before the pieces of the pc sheet hit the floor.

I suggest you play only one PC. Only for those who have not achieve system mastery. Now we always had a backup PC who would magically teleport in before the next big combat. Even is that backup PC erasable ink was still drying. But I do agree with lack of background comments.

Ok I will give you the Law of Character Generation. But sometimes my midlevel PC died before the erasable ink was dry.

Ok I will also give the Law of the GM Squeeze.

Suggestion of Stories. If I want to read the GM story, if read his fan fiction. The story was not meek Jasper and his merry band taking on G1. But what happen DURING the GAME, and how the druid became THE GRANDMA KILLER DRUID. Or the 3 and half Staves of the Magi.

Now some footnotes. Death was so common place we change the rules of Rod of Resurrection to only worry about the class, if that. New PCs were generally a level below the lowest PC level, or a level below the average party level. I could create a non-caster of any level using 4d6 drop the lowest in under 3 minutes. Casters took generally 5 minutes. A PC entered/left the dungeon due to the Chaos Fog, so as soon character creation and bathroom break for the player was done, poof the pc arrived.

I generally played with groups which 6 GM 7 Players, no waiting and no modules finished.

I agree with Elfcrusher. DM” Why are you Attacking Jasper’s PC?”

Elfcrusher, “Wednesday he didn’t let copy his homework!”

I generally play AL now days. Already my last homebrew 5E game broke up 2 years ago during work schedules. I roll in the open and pull very little punches. I average a kill one out three sessions, even when I don’t want to. (various stories there.) I have plastic $1 Skull where the pcs names are written. I introduce each new player to Skully and tell them death is easy so is coming back from the dead. Their actions and my dice rolling hot will kill them. Most players accept this but I have fright a few away.
 



pming

Legend
Hiya!

The "Laws" reflect what IS, not what we want it to be. I'm glad you can make it as a "killer" GM, but that's rarely how it works today.

I don't think I'm a "killer DM"....I have taken to calling myself that because it disarms those who would seek to just point and say "Well, YOU'RE a killer DM! So, whatever!" and dismiss my opinion without even attempting to think about what I am saying. Also, I am a "killer DM" by today's standards...not the standards 20+ years ago. Lastly...it does tend to start interesting conversations from which I sometimes gain valuable insight into my own shortcomings as a DM. A DM should always be striving to learn...even if that learning is a bit ego-deflating. :)

In my limited 3e experience, and I'm going to include Pathfinder in that, if I am DM'ing and a players PC gets killed by, say, a lucky critical hit and max damage, then they die. Now, an 'old skool' player may get upset in the moment and swear to let off some steam...but they understand and accept that death is a very real possibility that all their characters might succumb to. But 'newer' players...who learned RPG's/D&D with 3e/PF? They get upset...and then proceed to tell me how "unfair" it is or how I am "trying to kill their characters" or that their last DM "always gave them a save" or had some house rule that allowed the DM to "fudge" the death somehow. I don't do that, 99% of the time. I hand them a blank character sheet and say "Well, now you get to make a NEW favorite character. Just try it". Usually an hour into it they are excited to play their new PC. (oh...and that 1% of the time when I have 'saved' a PC?...I just outright tell everyone..."Ok, that was really cheap and pointless...agreed? Good. Ok, Hector the Huge looks like he's gone through a meat grinder...but he's still alive...if you want him to be. BUT, reduce his Comeliness by 1d4p [oh, "p" means "penetration dice"...it's a Hackmaster thing). That said, I think I've had a player agree to that MAYBE 2 or 3 times in 40 years of DM'ing. What can I say? I was blessed by great friends and players. :)

Anyhoo..."killer DM" is in regards to today's standards is what I'm saying. And yeah, I am kinda proud of that for the simple fact that I stayed true to my DM'ing mantra of "Be Fair, Be Prepared, and Be Neutral". If that makes me a "Killer DM"...so be it. Badge of honour I say! ;)

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

jasper

Rotten DM
....
....

Anyhoo..."killer DM" is in regards to today's standards is what I'm saying. And yeah, I am kinda proud of that for the simple fact that I stayed true to my DM'ing mantra of "Be Fair, Be Prepared, and Be Neutral". If that makes me a "Killer DM"...so be it. Badge of honour I say! ;)

^_^

Paul L. Ming
clap clap clap. Thank for sharing Paul. As it is your 20th kill you get your red plastic coin. Everyone!
THANK FOR BEING FAIR!
 

pming

Legend
Hiya!

clap clap clap. Thank for sharing Paul. As it is your 20th kill you get your red plastic coin. Everyone!
THANK FOR BEING FAIR!

YAY! :) Always wanted a red plastic coin!
...
...
...wait....you were being sarcastic weren't you? ... ... "ROCKS FALL, ALL YOUR CHARACTERS DIE!!!"

;)

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

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