Tag: PC Death

Being Dead Sucks III: Better Ways to Die and Stay Dead


So, having been dead for a week and come back, none the worse for wear, I’ve come to a conclusion. In the end, we want our PCs to mean something. We want to remember the moments that we turned a general into a pacifist, that we blew up a troll during the first round of combat, flirted with an icon and lived to cherish the memory, saved our friend from something that by all accounts should have put her down to stay or that we moved on from that thing that had been holding us back (and ate him). We want our PC’s lives to mean something and if they die . . . well . . . there are deaths and deaths and deaths. Deaths that make the story, deaths that ruin the story and plenty of deaths that mean nothing at all. We want our death to be one that makes the story, that we remember fondly in 15 years– not a speedbump on the way to level 20.

Thing is, to do that, we need a system that supports it. Take a look at these:

Dungeon World

Move: Last Breath

“When you’re dying you catch a glimpse of what lies beyond the Black Gates of Death’s Kingdom (the GM will describe it).  Then roll (just roll, +nothing– yeah, Death doesn’t care how tough or cool you are).

*On a 10+, you’ve cheated Death – you’re in a bad spot but you’re still alive.  *On a 7-9, Death himself will offer you a bargain.  Take it and stabilize or refuse and pass beyond the Black Gates into whatever fate awaits you.  *6-, your fate is sealed.  You’re marked as Death’s own and you’ll cross the threshold soon.  The GM will tell you when.”

I like it for multiple reasons. Hitting the threshold doesn’t mean you’re dead and that’s the end. Hitting the threshold leads to *10+ gaming on, but hurting *7-9 choices, choices and more choices! *6- death . . . but . . . not just now. You play on but you’re on borrowed time. At a thematic point you die thematically. Your death can have meaning as you save the day on the way out.

Planet Mercenary

“If your character suffers enough damage, they can die. It doesn’t even take an action!
All damage that you suffer lowers your Health, and when your Health drops to zero or below, you immediately fall unconscious. The next attack that hits you will kill you. 31st-century medicine is amazing, but there’s a point at which it runs up against “meat salad” and moves on.
You also die if you ever sustain damage equal to or greater than double your maximum Health (see “meat salad,” above). This may mean you die instantly without falling unconscious first. Yes, that’s harsh, but if you suffered that much damage you probably did something pretty reckless, right? Right?
Unlike actual combat, dying in the game doesn’t mean you stop playing. Battlefield promotion of NPC grunts as full player characters is quick and easy. You’ll be building these characters during every mission and perhaps even eyeing them with interest. The death of your current character is a chance to seize control of your favorite fire team member and start a whole new adventure.”

This is okay by me for multiple reasons. Planet Mercenary makes no bones about your PC’s being expected to die. This game isn’t about individual heroism. It’s dark comedy about a mercenary company. Your mercenary company has a name and identity every bit as important as your PC’s identity– moreso even. Sort of like my attachment to my kingdom in Kingmaker, the game encourages you to invest emotionally in your company, your ship, your AI and your grunts. In effect, you’re playing a little bit of you and a little bit of everything else but your fellow PC’s and the enemy. You might be risking your life day in and day out. There’s no retirement plan. But the company? The company doesn’t die.

You can generally have someone take the bullet, beam, or whatnot for you. If you take damage that drops you, your friends have an awfully good chance of saving you. Lastly, you’ve already got a backup PC on hand, in a company, with a ship and an AI that you’re heavily invested in. So instead of punishing you for dying by hurting your Kingdom, Planet Mercenary offers the bereaved a new life in the same place.

Add to that, once you’ve reached a certain level of success, your company can afford something akin to resurrection for dead PC’s. So if you’ve play long enough with your PC, they get harder to kill so that they stay killed.

13th Age:

“Traditional d20 games have characters fall unconscious at 0 hp, with that character’s player rolling checks to avoid losing more hp each turn. We’d rather give you a chance of making a dramatic comeback while still risking death if your allies haven’t found a
way to get you on your feet.
Down at 0 hp: When you drop to 0 hp or below, you fall unconscious and can’t take any actions. But you do get to make death saves (see below).
Dead at negative half: Keep track of how far below 0 hp you go. You also die when you reach negative hit points equal to half your maximum hit points.
Healing while you’re down: If you’re able to use one of your recoveries (or otherwise get healed) while you are dying, ignore your current negative hit points. Start from 0 and add the hit points you’ve regained.
Make death saves while down: At the start of your turn, roll a death save on a d20. Death saves are hard saves (16+).
If you roll 16+, use a recovery to return to consciousness and heal up to the number of hit points you rolled with your recovery. Tell everyone what form of courage, willpower, stubbornness, or quest brought you back from the brink. But that is all you can do
on your turn.
If you roll 15 or less, you take one step toward the grave.
After the fourth failed death save in a single battle, you die.
If you roll a natural 20, you get to take actions normally that turn after telling everyone what inspired or caused your heroic return.
Stabilizing an unconscious character: If one of your allies is unconscious and you don’t have magic to heal them, you can still stabilize them and keep them from dying. Get to their side and make a DC 10 healing skill check using Wisdom as a standard action to stabilize your ally. Failure wastes your standard action, but at least it doesn’t hurt your friend. Success stabilizes your ally. If your stabilization check is 25+, you treat their wounds so quickly that it only takes a quick action; you can use your standard action normally that turn.
A character that has been stabilized isn’t safe yet, nor are they up. A stabilized character is still unconscious, rolling death saves on their turn, but failed death saves no longer take them a step closer to death. Ignore failed death saves while stabilized.
Healing potions are great: Feeding a dying character a healing potion always takes a standard action. It also always lets the downed character use a recovery and gets them on their feet . . . but the character feeding the potion doesn’t have any chance of rolling high and getting away with only burning a quick action on their turn.”

Granted I’ve only gotten to run this game, not play it. This game is about being a hero. I feel like this game is what I wanted Pathfinder to be. The death rules reflect that by trying pretty hard not to kill you . . . but there’s always a chance.

FATE: The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game

This one has a player-faced method of mitigating defeat. If loss seems inevitable, before the roll that takes you out “You can offer a concession instead of continuing the conflict.

A concession is basically a special form of being taken out– you lose the conflict, but you get to decide your character’s fate on your own terms instead of your opponent’s.

A concession has to pass muster with the rest of the group before it’s accepted– the conditions of the loss still have to represent a clear and decisive disadvantage for your character.”

Things like consequences, which affect your character sheet and the storyline are typical during a concession situation. The game sets up situations whereby doing what can make the most sense in a tough spot can both save the day and all of your friends . . . and turn your PC into an NPC, someone who made the choice that took them over the edge of their own humanity. Often, but not always, these NPC’s are evil and become villains in the story. But at the time, making this choice, this sacrifice, meant enough to the player that they were willing to do it.

Choice is always key, in life and death. Agency is key.

I know there are more out there, but these are the ones on my mind recently. If you have another (or just want to share your most awesome PC death) I’d love to hear about it.


Being Dead Sucks II: A Week in Fall Out


First, I’m in shock. Then I’m about to be something else. . . and I see the ranger’s player. He’s in shock too and it’s all his fault and he’s a puddle of face-covered, head-in-hands misery and I put my own feelings on the back burner to reassure him that it’s okay. Everyone in the party is upset. I’m trying to comfort them all. They want blood. GM ends the game.

Ranger’s player realizes he wasn’t using his favored enemy bonuses for the entire fight. He’s even more miserable. GM realizes he was too tired and should have known the spread out the damage. He wants me to be okay with this. I love the GM so . . . I’ll be okay. It’s a game and I’m honestly just happy that he didn’t consider spreading out the damage and choose not to.

They’re going to raise Gavriil. My sister takes me to task for sacrificing my PC, saying that if any other PC had died (hers included), they wouldn’t have to bother raising them. Dunno if this is true. What’s true is Gavriil is going to cost us like 7000 gold. I tell her I’ll try not to do it again.

I’m worried about what this will do to the kingdom. The week wears on and I’m stressing about the kingdom. My sister, our damage dealer realizes she’d also forgotten something that meant she could have dealt more damage than she’d been doing. She feels like the whole thing is her fault. I’m comforting her and at one point admit to myself that I just want a chance to grieve my PC’s death. I DIED! And . . . everyone else’s guilt is raining on my misery. I can’t grieve when I’m worried about how everyone else is coping.

Then . . . the 4th player reminds me that I could have cast Cure Moderate Wounds on the ranger. No, I argue, I can only cast Cure Light Wounds which wouldn’t have made a difference. I check. He’s right. This goes beyond an error in judgment or a simple miscalculation. I forgot something. Something critical. Something that got me killed. I’d broken a cardinal rule of RPG’s: Know Thy Character Sheet.

And then I get mad. At me. Of course. Anger at me is something I’m used to. I engage in a good long angry mood, properly directed! I killed my own PC, messed up our kingdom, ruined everyone’s night . . . because combat bores me.

Come next session, they toted Gavrill up to be raised, emptied their pockets to pay for it, returned and dealt with kingdom issues and everything went back to normal. In one session. All of that emotion over . . . nothing.

I forgot about Pathfinder’s death rules which basically say if you have enough money death is meaningless. That sucks. Maybe it’s too much like real life? If you have the cash, you can buy your way out of almost anything. Not death, but still. Ugh.

I don’t like PC death. I don’t like meaningful death rules. Meaningful death rules mean that Troll #3 is not going to kill you, sure. It also takes all meaning out of a fight if you know you can’t die.

So. What do I like? I’m so glad you asked! (I know you didn’t ask, but . . . you’re reading this. So.)

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.