GM Tips is our series to help Storytellers and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last week we talked about gaming group horror stories and this week, we get a little evil with killing your PC’s.
Death is rarely the end for characters in our roleplaying games thanks to a plethora of resurrection spells, cloning, or even a change in creature types. Heck, Healing Word in Dungeons & Dragons is powerful enough to prevent certain death, and in Eclipse Phase you’re functionally immortal already. One could argue that these mechanics are to help prevent the swinging nature of dice—preventing the game from tanking when the storyteller is on a hot streak. I’ve stood on my soapbox before and championed the cause against killing the characters previously, but sometimes your party of happy-go-lucky murderers needs to die.
As a storyteller, we can ham up an encounter and eradicate anyone. It’s really not hard, and each system has a GM win-card. In Vampire: The Masquerade; declare a blood hunt and send legions of enemies after them. In Eclipse Phase; hijack their brain and rewrite their personality. In D&D; bottle up their souls so they can’t escape. Yet these are just tools to an end. If your party has moved down the path of sadistic, cruel and stupid or a single PC needs serious consequences for an action, then these tips are for your chronicle.
Invoke Their Legacy
Clever players and kind storytellers will always allow the character to return from the dead so my favorite method of death doesn’t involve targeting hit points on a character sheet. Go after their legacy instead. Every character has a litany of deeds they’ve achieved over their adventures and having a pissed off organization work to tarnish their reputation does wonders. If they’ve any family or students they’ve trained up, attacking them is good fuel, and if they’ve any beloved animal companion, create a John Wick scenario and go after the dog.
Turning their backgrounds against them is a great way to showcase consequences. When a cleric keeps engaging in shady behavior, their church is a great source of conflict to bring forth. Sure, the player may have kept things a secret, but it’s not like these NPCs don’t have powerful scrying magic themselves and would keep tabs on their agents right? Even in organized play adventures where it’s difficult to kill characters that can just go to another table, you can still go after their factions or their equipment. Ensure character’s death is beyond their health-track is what this tip boils down to. It’s the same no matter what system or engine you are playing.
Reincarnation Isn’t Guaranteed
Taking reincarnation off the table can instantly ground your campaign and get real. In most cases, this requires a world rewrite. A fantasy campaign could be run with low magic, perhaps even restricting divine magic entirely and relying upon the few magical items that exist. A science fiction campaign just needs to let the prospect of cloning or body swaps go away, and urban fantasy ones just need to erase ghosts from the world. When players know that their death is final, the adventures they embark on instantly have more gravitas to them, so it’s important that they know ahead of time—they aren’t coming back.
Yet we CAN surprise them after they die. It does require an extra scene or three, perhaps even a full table session to do properly. Once a party member dies, and the group goes to revive them, run a side scene with that character in the afterlife (or in the digital world for sci-fi folks) where complications arise. Perhaps the character gets a stellar offer to go fight a war on another plane? Or perhaps their deity is unhappy with them? A truly terrifying scenario would be to narrate for everyone in the game that the character being lost in an eternal black void (like if the server they were stored on got unplugged). Your goal with removing any semblance of reincarnation is to invoke horror and dread (and that may require extra scenes to explain it).
Death Is An End, But Not For The Player
Players (and storytellers) get attached to their characters and so when true death finally happens it can be a shock. No doubt, it was a loss on their end, and it’s the end of that characters tale. It’s easy to say that a new character will plop in and the adventuring party will be happy to have them, but that’s not why we are here. When players need to learn consequences for their actions, those consequences need to be felt long after. You should have a funeral in the game and keep twisting that knife. For example, have NPC investigators follow up with the party on where that character went.
Additionally, guilt by association is a fair judgment call for particularly heinous crimes on behalf of a single character. While one may have been sentenced to death, or on the wrong side of a political movement, the rest of the party should feel some backlash as well. These aftershocks to a death scene not only reinforce the impact of a character’s death, they also add a resolution to the players involved.
How do you handle character death in your chronicles? Let us know in the comments below!
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Featured Image by: Critical Role Vecna – Caio Santos @ Blacksalander
Image Credits: Critical Role Battling Vecna by Jasmine Grant, Critical Role
Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, and a storyteller with a focus on LARPs, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and many more. You can follow game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook.