Death Is Only The Beginning
Death is the threat that hangs over every character, PC and NPC alike, at the table. For the longest time, death was the ultimate punishment. The consequence that couldn’t be topped. The fate that every character faced and every player hoped to help them avoid. The fear of death is a natural one because in many games it means that your time playing that character is done and over with. Days, weeks, months, or even years of effort and gaming could disappear. Even in games where your character could be brought back to life, like D&D, death was something to be avoided because it often came with some sort of cost or consequence.
The problem with death as a consequence for player failure is, well, that it’s kind of stale, overdone, and tends to screw things up for more than just the player whose character was killed. You can only have a GM threaten to kill your character, or actually do so, so many times before it loses meaning. If you’re actually losing characters to death, all it tends to do after a while is detach you from everything in the campaign, even your own character. And the other thing to consider is that a dead character can derail a campaign plot completely or disintegrate a group of PCs if the dead character was the keystone that was keeping it together.
This means that GMs should be looking outside the box, in my opinion. Death has so long been the standard consequence for player failure or screw ups that people forget to consider anything else. This is in spite of the fact that there are a lot of creative, fun, and interesting alternatives that can be used which aren’t as disruptive to the GM, player, or campaign. Instead of killing a character, change that killing blow to something else. Knock them unconscious and pull something else out of your bag of tricks.
101 (or so) Ways To Torment Your Characters
Like what? To some extent, it depends on the genre, game, and situation. You can do things when running D&D that would get you laughed at if you tried it Shadowrun. Your Call of Cthulhu solution might go over like a lead balloon in Mutants & Masterminds. But there are still some baseline ideas that you can use to start off with. First up is one of the easiest and often one of the ones that players feel most keenly: break their stuff. Instead of blowing a hole in a players chest when they get shot with some goon’s shotgun, tell them that their beloved and customized sniper rifle took part of the blow and saved their life. When the rabid dire wereweasel gruesomely kills the paladin, instead knock them out and tell them that their +3 flaming longsword was broken as it parried the killing blow. It goes beyond just immediate in-combat possibilities too, don’t forget. Maybe that shotgun blast didn’t kill the player or break his sniper rifle. But when the gang comes back later to get vengeance on the players, they announce their intentions by firebombing the shotgunned character’s apartment. Maybe the rabid dire wereweasel doesn’t break the paladin’s sword, but when getting knocked unconscious the paladin’s coin pouch comes loose and makes easy pickings for a pickpocket back in town.
Okay, so you don’t want to break the players stuff. That’s understandable, because players can get exceptionally touchy about that sort of thing. What else can you do? Something debilitating like injuries or similar problems. Let’s go back to the character about to take a shotgun blast to the chest. Maybe their armor stopped the blast, but the character broke their shoulder when they fell down after being shot and they’re going to have a rough time doing much for the rest of the time and a while after. As for the paladin? That rabid dire wereweasel gave him a concussion that he’s going to be feeling for some time. If these sorts of things aren’t enough for you, go a little more hardcore. That shotgun mangled the characters arm and he’s going to need a cybernetic replacement to even use it anymore. The paladin might have lost an eye in the attack and won’t be seeing too well until someone drops some serious magic to heal him.
Not enough for you? Well there’s still more. Capturing characters is a time honored tradition and one that drives players absolutely nuts, but most players would still prefer it to character death. It also probably has elements of the previous two options built in (breaking their stuff and breaking them) depending on the situation. It also can take the campaign in new and interesting ways without the potential trainwreck that a dead character could generate. The downed shadowrunner could be taken hostage by the gang to be used as a human shield or to get the rest of the group to back off. The paladin might be dragged off mid-fight to be eaten by the rabid dire wereweasel, forcing the other players to choose between rescuing him and protecting the wagon from any other raiders still attacking.
Then there’s bringing in a third party to the situation, which is one of my favorites because it often affects more than just the character. When that character gets shotgunned and goes down, the Johnson who has been monitoring the situation sends in a troubleshooter to bail the players out. This could cost the group money, might mean a hit to their reputation (and thus future work), or might lead to a fight with the troubleshooter. Or maybe a gang member recognises the downed character and after the fight is over, goes after the characters family. A group of passing adventurers might help out the downed paladin, only to have an unsavory request when they call in the paladin’s debt to them. Perhaps the paladin’s god brings him back from the cusp of death, only to require that he foreswear his loving family forever and dedicate himself even more fully to the god.
One of the things I hope all these examples demonstrate is that there’s a lot of options, a lot of room for creativity, and a lot of consequences and complications that can make a game more fun. The other thing to keep in mind here is that there’s a lot of room for give and take with the players. It’s something that playing Dresden Files RPG made me aware of and other indie games have reinforced. If you can, let the player have some input with the consequences. Ask them what they think should happen instead of being killed. Present them with your idea and see if they have an opinion or an alternative. The player might think of something cool or interesting that you might not have considered. Ultimately as GM you have final say, but letting the player have input helps sell it to them and make it theirs. It makes bad things more palatable if the players feel that it could have been worse or that they stood up and helped themselves out.
Joe Black Is Just Waiting, Not Gone
Looking up at the title of this article, you’ll see that it says “death is only the beginning”. Not “death should be abolished from your game”. And that’s because even though death has become something that’s overused, that doesn’t mean that you can’t make death itself interesting in your game. Death is still the ultimate consequence for most games and most players and when used well, can really ramp up the tension and excitement.
How do you do it well? First comes with knowing your genre, game, and situation. In Shadowrun or Call of Cthulhu, being killed by some faceless mook is just a part of the experience. They’re games that feature a cruel and uncaring world and dying because of bad luck or bad choices is rather appropriate. Even in this case though, let a dying character have one last chance to be awesome as they’re bleeding out in an alley or whatever. Let them have that last-breath monologue or pull that grenade pin before pull their killer close with the last of their strength.
However, in a game like Star Wars or D&D you feel kind of ripped off if random mook #1892 kills your character. In those games, death usually should be epic and fun. Climactic boss encounters, unusual situations, along with spectacular and dangerous set piece environments are tools used to make death interesting and unique. Your character didn’t get shot in the back. Your character got shot in the back while chasing the vile Sith Lord through a derelict cruiser in a spaceship graveyard while trying to save an entire planet. Your character wasn’t just killed by an orc. Your character was killed by an orc during a desperate last stand to keep the castle from being overrun and your sacrifice was the key to victory.
What it boils down to, for me, is that making death meaningful makes dying as a consequence of failure relevant again and even makes it fun. If your player gets to do something really cool, maybe even rules breaking, as their character dies they will focus on that cool thing instead of the fact that the character dies. At the very least it takes the some of sting out of it. Even in games where death isn’t final, don’t just brush it off. Don’t let the players cast Raise Dead and be done with it. Ask the player why their character would want to return to life instead of staying in their presumed eternal paradise. Turn it into a mini-adventure where the living players have to guide the dead player’s soul back to their body, like Orpheus and Eurydice. Inform the player in secret that in exchange for being returned to life, someone they love will die unless they complete a task (an idea borrowed and modified from the Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks).
I think, in summary, that it’s about variety and creativity. Death isn’t the only option to player failure, but it still is an option and an important one at that. If players feel like their characters can never die, it takes some of the tension away that is generated by that fear. The key is to try different things, to spice up the available offerings, and keep everything fresh and unique. Don’t just keep leaning on dying as the looming threat facing the characters if things don’t go their way. Failure can come in a variety of ways from many different directions, why should the consequences and complications from it be so one-dimensional?