Remember watching some safe-for-kids adventure show when you were young and wondering how so many battles could happen without a single person dying? Every shot was non-lethal. People ejected from smoking aircraft just before they exploded. Cars went tumbling down a cliff only to have people climb out at the bottom dizzy but unharmed. As we got older many of us realized that not only was this lazy story writing, we realized we were bored with a show once it became clear no one was going to die. RPGs can suffer similar fates. A group of heroes are on some quest or some dangerous adventure of their own. If you take away the chance of death, the whole effort loses value. You see, in order to overcome and enjoy a challenge, there has to be an actual challenge.
Game Mastering Death – “How could you kill me like that?!”
GMs take heart because I know the nagging guilt that can take hold after you kill a PC. They may have spent ages building it, advancing those levels, bringing together an amazing concept and backstory only to watch them die. If they’ve never experienced character death, they’re probably going to be shocked and disappointed and the pressure to let them somehow survive, to find a way to leave them bloodied but not dead… that pressure is palpable. But death is almost essential to good adventure storytelling and if we’re to take anything from Game of Thrones it should be that even favorite characters in a story could die… and more than one.
I don’t advocate TPKs (Total Party Kills) as it points to an overwhelming likelihood the adventure was over the players’ level. If you kill a character with a Tarrasque, you’re probably not doing something right. But if your players don’t face death at least some of the time, they will increasingly push the envelope of “bravery” until they’re rushing dragons as though they were a nothing but giant EXP piggy banks. They’ll find the story less interesting and you will find their actions less tolerable. You might start seeking vengeance against the players or their characters might act like bored gods in your world, killing and looting at random. Death ensures that a game maintains enough challenge to temper blind aggression and to stimulate actual character development. Simply put, if a player doesn’t think their character can die, there’s little reason to worry about who they are.
So the simple tip I have for Game Mastering death is this: Make it worthwhile. No matter how simple the cause of death, don’t treat it like a casino bet (“Sorry, better luck next time”). You’re about to end a life and hopefully it was an interesting life. Make the death appropriate even by granting some liberties with how they die – One last move to make a heroic effort; One last chance to thwart the enemy or slow them down long enough for others to escape. Maybe the character is afforded the opportunity to say some final words, whether it’s something redeeming, or illuminating, or just funny. In any fashion and with any death, make the death become something more than a crumpled character sheet.
Facing Death as a Player – “That was so worth it!”
Heroics. In adventure, heroes make sacrifices to save something greater than themselves. Heroic stories are fraught with death and occasionally even the hero dies. But we don’t judge a story on who survives; we judge a story on how well it affected us (the audience). If you’re playing a character in a story and you’ve just hit the bottom of your hit points…don’t fight your GM about it. Instead, die gloriously. If they haven’t already given you the chance, ask for the opportunity to make a more meaningful death scene. Your character just died so it’s really not asking too much. It’s a chance to reveal that long standing secret through bloody coughs, or a chance to throw that valued magical weapon to another member of the party and shout, “Avenge ME!” Create a death worth dying for. A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, I played a stormtrooper who the GM allowed to pull the pin on a thermal detonator just before he was force choked to death by the BBEG. Boom. Legendary.
It can’t always be the most climactic moment. Sometimes a character dies before reaching the BBEG. There’s always a chance you die getting past the guards or you could die the victim of a nefarious trap, but if the GM is understanding, and you’re ready to take advantage of it, you will die a hero and be remembered.