Character Death Makes For A Better Game

I like to run a deadly game. This is common with folks who play older editions of Dungeons & Dragons and other Fantasy Role Playing Games. I am not cruel or looking to kill your characters when I do this. There is a great deal of misunderstanding when it comes to this subject. I really enjoy a deadly dungeon, and encounters that the players have little to no chance of surviving if they go in swinging.

PC DeathIn newer editions it seems that there is emphasis on putting your players against monsters that are rated at a combat level that they can defeat in battle. I am not a fan of this. I do not want the players to defeat every opponent in battle. I also do not like to give a lot of experience points for killing monsters and NPC’s in game. The tendency to kill characters does not correlate to a combat oriented game in the philosophy of running a game for me, it is quite the opposite. Combat heavy games tend to be those where death is less likely.

There are a few reasons I prefer to run games this way. For starters I am not a big hack & slash gamer. I can get bored of combat quick. If your solutions to the problems ahead of you are just to kill whatever I find the game becomes monotonous. If I have done my job right as a Dungeon Master in a game, then my players will be invested in their characters and wish to stay alive. If they realize that death is an option and fear what they are going up against there is a tendency to look for solutions for problems besides killing. I have had better game sessions that have been spontaneous and unexpected and engaging from my players or myself as a player trying to avoid the possible fight and combat and trying unique plans.

There is tension in sneaking around the dragon trying to get in and out and stay alive knowing if you are found you will not live. There is intrigue knowing that killing an opponent is not that easy and you will have to be more cunning to deal with them. There is fun in pulling off a crazy scheme everyone has hacked out as a party and are trying to pull off not sure how it will go. And sometimes those plots are just elaborate schemes to get the upper hand in a battle. I find that players will take far more control of the game and invest more in what they are going to do when they start plotting instead of just jumping into a fight.

Towards the beginning of our Hyperborea campaign our characters found themselves being tasked with breaking into a tower and killing some Magic Users. Out of fear of these Magic Users having more power than our low-level characters had, and out of fear of death, we as players started weaving a plot of deception, intrigue and murder that lasted weeks. Now, had we barged in and killed them right away through combat weeks of game would have never happened. Most all the adventure would have been that on combat encounter and nothing else.

The possibility of death is real. In real life we do not just kill whatever we come against and run into right away. That is a big deal. How interesting would a plot be if anything you had a problem with you just killed and attacked? I don not often create a big baddie for an overarching campaign. Most of our most memorable villains have risen from those who were a random encounter or meant for a small one-off adventure but managed to live and go on to grow in importance because of the characters interactions with the NPC. I have had so many instances where the Player Characters have become fixated on NPC’s and the Players made that villain important to themselves. I have seen more investment in the game and story in times like that where they are taking a large part to craft the story. One of the most useful tools in that is making threats deadly because that is where players make more creative decisions and begin to really have true autonomy and control over the game and situation.

Want to avoid murder hobos? You might have more fun with a group who is apprehensive to engage in combat than superpower almighty heroes who will pretty much heal from anything in a day and can take out about anything you throw at them. Now, I have found that play style harder with newer games as they tend to cater to players creating powerful characters and lots of power gaming.

Now, I do not boast of how many die, or tell players they can’t live through stuff. As a DM my job is to make a fun game and give an adventure they enjoy. I work with the other players to have fun. I am not seeking the total party kill in this. As a DM you can pull out any powerful creature and kill any character, so it is not an issue of trying to one-up your players. This should in no way be a power trip of the DM over the players. If you are reading that or doing that I do take issue with that. A DM can kill characters easily and should not. But death should be on the table. When actions have real consequences players will make different decisions in game.

I am a forgiving DM for the most part. I have not often killed a character without some sort of warning. If you get a “are you sure you want to do that” or a “You realize this might be a bad idea” it is intended as that warning and hint. I layout that there could be death in this chosen route, and there is often. Sometimes a player risks it all despite the threat of death and rolls that rare unexpected natural 20 and the whole table yells out amazed and excited that they might live through it. That excitement and anticipation and suspense is greatly helped by the possibility that this option has a good chance of failure. That is the Player’s choice to make. Either way death in your games can be a lot of fun and can bring out a lot more than just combat and hack and slash gaming. It is hard to go into a tavern and start fighting if you realize that a bunch of villagers could kill you quick if you get out of control, and likely would if you start killing others.

This year in our OSE game we ran into an Ogre in a dungeon we were exploring, and instead of fighting him as I am pretty sure was intended, our first level characters proceeded to make a friendship and alliance with him. This led to a ton of interesting situations with using the Ogre to help us on multiple occasions to confront threats we thought were over our head and set traps and rouses for the other monsters in the dungeon. There was way more role playing and way more intrigue in interacting with the Ogre and plotting different ideas of how to proceed into dangerous areas than just going in with swords drawn.

I run a deadly game not to kill off players, but so players start to get creative and get invested in doing more than just fighting. I want players to spice up what they do in game and entertain me and throw me for loops. I want players to get invested in creating the narrative of the game as well and keeping it deadly helps that.

Posted by Logar The Barbarian

1 comment

Great philosophy! Every game needs a limiting factor — in fact, a number of limiting factors — and it’s so important that character death is not turned into the proverbial “neutron bomb”. Ironic that in bringing in the ultimate loss, you can actually bring balance to the game… (And of course, there’s Speak with the Dead…!)

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