Being Dead Sucks I: Anatomy of a Player Character Death

Gavriil Ionescu Orlovsky is a 19-year-old arcanist and a worshipper of Nethys, Desna and Brigh. He’s clever and sensitive. He likes people and goes out of his way to make their lives a bit easier. He misses his mother and has a complicated relationship with his father. His best friend is an uneducated foreigner, a girl who taught him the meaning of courage. His second best friend is a rat. Last week, he died.

He was level 4 and that made a difference. I’ve had plenty of PCs die in one-shots. Gavriil was different. The campaign he’s in made it even more so.

We’re playing Pathfinder’s Kingmaker adventure path. I play Pathfinder because it’s popular where I live, because my friends like it, because D&D homebrew was my first RPG and Pathfinder wasn’t far behind, because Pathfinder game beats no game. I don’t dislike it, exactly . . . but I’m always, always, always up for something else.

I was introduced to RPG’s online and the first time I GM’d a campaign it was via chat. I knew Pathfinder wasn’t what I wanted. At the time, it felt too complex. I opted for GURPS, hoping that learning one system would let me run whatever game I wanted to run without having to learn a million games. (I later entered the camp of ‘rules should contribute to the theme and feel of the game’ but that’s another story.)

My first campaign was a pirate game with vampires and dragons, it began on a railroad and turned into a sandbox. No one died. Not even close, but I did learn about the pain an NPC death could cause. It’s possible that the player most attached to this particular NPC, the one who put said NPC in harm’s way, cried when he died. I know I immediately felt horrible, but it was done and when the campaign ended the PC was looking for a way to bring his friend back from the dead. Years later it’s still a sensitive memory.

One thing I didn’t learn, and should have, was the value of party cohesion. I was too stuck on letting all of my players tell their stories independent of everything else. It made for a harried me and a bit of a mess and I swore off having one particular guy at my virtual table because of the time sink his PC was.

The second campaign I ran was Numenera, as I wasn’t in love with GURPS. Also online, this game suffered brutally at the hands of lack of party cohesion, to the point where I felt forced to allow PvP. I had one PC die, more than once, while I pulled strings to keep him alive. I sacrificed NPC’s pretty willy-nilly to keep the party alive and the PC most invested in those NPC’s had a terrible time of it. Looking back I don’t think anyone but the one player cared– and he just paid for that investment over and over again. (Bad GM. No donut.)

Meanwhile, at home, I began a 13th Age game and a Numenera game, in tandem, with my sister and her husband. It was this Numenera game that saw my first genuine PC death. My sister’s level one PC made the wrong call and then failed her escape roll and an artifact disintegrated her. Again I felt horrible! She was okay with it and made another PC and we finished the campaign.

A bit later, Matthew ran a Pathfinder campaign of his own design that I enjoyed very much. He successfully weathered the loss of one player and his PC. He endured having to raise one of his PC’s over and over and over . . . and over again. And then, like me, he swore off having this player at his virtual table and wrote him out. (Yes, I told him so.) And the loss of a third player and his PC was the game’s deathblow.

The player with all the death issues in my Numenera game started a Mass Effect game that I’m still enjoying. He does NPCs so right. We’ve been on the razor’s edge of losing a few. One has spent a good amount of time in a hospital bed unconscious while we searched for a cure. One resulted in a rescue mission that sparked a civil war. The Geth’s consciousness is trapped in a cube with enemy Geth and we hope the other Geth manage to get him out in one piece. That was choice we made– do we try to get him out as critically injured as he is, knowing we can’t repair him, or do we put him in what may be safety where we can’t recover him. A good choice. Dunno if it will work out for us. Another is lost on a planet and running from the enemy while we do something entirely different . . . will he be alive and safe with our allies when we get back? Dunno. We’ll see.

At this point, I’ve run 3 completed campaigns and the 13th Age game is ongoing. I dropped another campaign (5e, this time) because of issues with keeping all my players invested. At the time, I felt that this was all on me and if I couldn’t keep them, it was all my fault and I was a terrible GM. I probably was a terrible GM, but even brilliant GM’s can’t control player investment. I should have just run with the ones that were having fun. Live and learn.

I found cons and organized play. I played and ran one-shots. I killed a bunch of PC’s and lost a bunch of PC’s. It was all good.

My sister started a game. Pathfinder. When I sacrificed a PC to save another PC, she took me to task. Actually, the PC didn’t die as I expected– it was a ‘pick one of your number to stay with me’ situation. The PC has big problems. My sister took me to task for sacrificing her, but I felt like it was the right thing to do. Who wants to play with one of those people who will take care of themselves to the exclusion of the party?

Coming down to Matthew’s broaching the subject of another Pathfinder game. I’m in. Pathfinder game is better than no game, and I loved the last game he ran. So Kingmaker is different. There are rules for kingdom building that don’t get touched in a normal Pathfinder game. I engaged with them much better than I expected and put quite a bit of time and energy into kingdom design.

And then there were issues. A random roll on an event chart gave us trolls on the border killing citizens and threatening industry. We sent people to take care of it, but a check for that failed miserably and they were torn to bits. The rest of the citizens were in shock and we accumulated unrest which penalizes everything. We couldn’t afford another failure so we headed out to take care of the threat ourselves.

Issues. Combat bores me and Pathfinder combat bores me more. I play to be someone else. Pathfinder has the trappings of a heroic game so I want to feel like a hero when I play it. Generally, I just feel inept. Pathfinder combat rules are about all the things you can’t do. I endure it and take all of my fun from interparty roleplay.

Fighting things instead of people is worse. I don’t want to kill the bears and the wolves and the tatzlewyrms in the forest. Why should I? They’re just animals at home. They’re just there because of the stupid random encounter charts. Trolls aren’t much better. It’s a thing being a thing. If I’ve got to fight, put me on the side of righteousness and give me something really evil to kill.

But we got trolls. So we go out there, first combat in months. The GM is excited! The ranger wants to fight– I don’t know if the ranger’s player cares. The other two players don’t. We get there, save some people, kill some trolls. I’m still bored. The ranger doesn’t retreat and gets hit . . . again. (The ranger always gets hit. Always.) Anyway . . . I think, I can’t do much, but I can go give the GM something else to hit so the ranger doesn’t die. I do so. The trolls that have been dealing 11 damage an attack all night suddenly get a crit and 3 hits. Gavriil takes like 40 damage or something and is 3 points past dead dead dead.

I’m in shock.

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