Cheating player death…
As a player you don’t want to die, of course, but… you do want there to be a risk. And as a GM you don’t want to instantly kill your players, of course, but… you do want them to be scared. Without a genuine risk of death, there’s no point playing, everything is just handed to you. Yet if you, as GM, set things too hard, you might be the proverbial dog who caught the car and wind up with a dead team of PCs at your feet. What do you do then?
What, you didn’t make a plan? I had a plan. The plan was simple and took 3ish years to see, but it was simple. I had a contingency plan in case anyone died when they weren’t expected to, like from a freak series of crits in a row. Basically, I had an NPC Tengu, who knew how to revive anyone but at a cost. Even low-level characters can be resurrected at a fair price, and what’s fairer than a mere +1 weapon? The mechanics of it are too simple though, let me give you the “story.” Also, this article goes a little longer than usual, but I think player death is important enough to cover and cover well.
When my PCs started they were all new and ready to make heroes of themselves. Interested in these people the town boss set his Tengu scout on them. He would follow them, track them, for every step of their paths, with zero chance for them to discover him. And when they were in genuinely dire straits (basically only when a hero fell) only then would the Tengu spring forward, save the day, and revive anyone who fell.
For quite some number of adventures, this Tengu tracked them, said nothing, and reported everything they did back to the town boss. It wasn’t until a session in which a Hangman Tree attacked and upset the rogues’ guild that the Tengu was forced into action, and at the same time, the GM learned a valuable lesson!
The GM lesson was simple. Until you see something in game, you don’t realize how it’ll go! Second, despite your best plans, your PCs will ALWAYS surprise you. The game session had been set up like a dungeon. Traps and low level monsters softened them up, and the Hangman Tree would be the boss fight, and one they were meant to lose…
The Hangman Tree succeeded in beating everyone, but only just! However, my lesson came when one of the Barbarians genuinely died and forced the Tengu into action. While raging and smashing bark, the Barbarian was low on health and got swallowed by the tree. And being squished unconscious, his extra Con mod left him, as did his extra health, and suddenly the damage he’d taken was lethal, well below his Con score. Oops!
The fight continued until all the PCs were downed. Only then did the Tengu jump out, finish off the Tree, and revive our dead Barbarian. Everyone else was merely unconscious. The PCs wouldn’t know any this until they awoke in a strange place, separated from one another, and with none of their items…
The whole thing had been a good set up, but the lesson about the Barbarian’s extra hit points was a sharp one. Not only that, but the Hangman Tree had only 10 health when it won the fight. The party was beaten, had spent plenty of spells, and STILL managed to take a boss fight to within 10 hit points of death! Had they been fully healed this would have been a one-sided affair!
This kind of player death was startling, but as a GM being surprised is one of the key delights. The Barbarian was revived before he even knew he was dead, and the Tengu introduced itself eventually and accepted payment, but has since left the PCs. They’re now level 7, and the town boss feels they have proven themselves. This death was in-game, and purely game based, so it stood as is.
Another type of death is the “storyline” death. Very popular in comic books, maybe you’ve read a few? The idea is that someone makes a noble sacrifice or otherwise an omen or premonition comes true. While my heroes had been tracking down the major villain of the piece and found a great underground cavern wherein Svirfneblin lived, there was a huge cave in.
The only way out was to locate a rumored Rod of Earth Moving, but the players had encountered an omen within the mountain dungeons, where a PC was found, dead, holding a key. The doppelganger didn’t waver however, it was a solid body double of the PC, and the key was taken and used to progress through the dungeon, but chilling none the less. Everyone felt the scare, but that was probably because it was the group Cleric, and no one else could heal.
Once the PCs found the Rod of Earth Moving they had to choose carefully who would take it. Being magical the Cleric was chosen, but the second her elven fingers reached out to take it the ground shook! Rocks fell, dust was shaken from the floor. Cave in, everybody run! Only the Cleric wouldn’t move. The Barbarians tried picking her up, but their attempts failed. They tried taking the Rod, which would move, but no matter what they did the Cleric was stuck fast. The Sorcerer rolled a knowledge Arcana check and knew what had happened – this was a trap pedestal. Whoever took the item became frozen in its place, allowing the owner of the trap to retrieve their item with the thief intact! With no time to spare the Sorcerer shouted a prayer for the Clerics well being, and the PCs ran and stumbled out of the caves, taking falling rock damage the entire way, before getting back up to the mountain’s mouth, Rod intact. The Svirfneblin all asked what had happened to the Cleric, however, and the PCs, with sad hearts, could only relate what had just happened, and we closed on that session with uncertainty.
This second kind of death is well done, when well and sparingly used. The PCs had plenty of warning, and they felt the sacrifice, even if unknown, was worthwhile. With the Rod the mountains could be opened, the PCs returning home and the Svirfneblin freed from tyranny. That was a fitting way for a
Cleric to go, right? I spoke with my PC afterward, and they wanted to replay the character at a later point, but in the meantime would enjoy the most annoying Druid ever to exist (I should write about her. PCs you love to hate). So in-game the spirit of the deceased PC communicated via dream that they would return one day, but had to go and say hi to their God first. There was a solo session to see whether this would ever actually happen, and a reward of a kick-ass Spear at the end, so all ended well.
The bad thing to do with a “story death” is using it more than once, because if the players get used to it they’ll come to just shrug at the “sacrifice”. It becomes ‘Okay, time for someone to write a new character’, as opposed to ‘Wow, I hope I can go like that!’
PC death’s should be prepared for it, because they will happen, and how you handle them changes a lot, sets the tone for the surviving PCs and their potential deaths. Do you want your players to die as heroes, or be an accidental pool of blood because of too many 20s? I love a game where everything is significant, and death is the final sentence in many PCs stories, so help make sure it’s a good one for the player unless they wanna come back somehow…
Thanks for reading, and join me next week when I talk about Pathfinder Playtest, as well as where my articles are heading next!
PS. Okay, there is another type of player death. We’re at the end of a bad guys story, but the PCs don’t know that…
I opened a portal so that the battlefield FILLED with Goblins. Literally, every square that wasn’t a PC or the bosses WAS a Goblin. The fight continued with some fun until the portal opened more, and a Black Dragon of unknown power shot its acid weapon through the portal before emerging itself.
The acid line “shish-kabobbed” a string of 25+ Goblins, but caught two of my PCs, one failing the save and the other rolling a natural 20. The saving PC took 25 damage, while the Barbarian (my second one) took 50 acid damage to the head, immediately dying. It was a cool shocking moment, but the PC was happy to let that be it.
A barbarian from day 1, raised to level 7, and felled by a black dragon’s acid breath. The gaping wound of his neck was still boiling away as he fell to his knees, dropped his sword and pitched forward on to the ground. What a glorious end for a Barbarian, right?
I had to include this death today because I didn’t work a way around it, and because it combined BOTH methods of avoiding player death up above. It was storyline (the PCs killed the villain of the previous 4 years of story, while meeting the next new baddy in line, who had the Dragon as a PET), and it was damage that surprised me too (25 or 50 isn’t negligible), and the PC was happy about it. Sometimes you run a perfect session, and you get thanked for killing your players!