GM Advice: 8 Lasting Consequences For When Death Is Too Good For PCs
A few days ago I wrote about how killing player characters can be good for them, and while I think the threat of death helps to enrich campaigns, I also recognize that death is not the worst thing that can happen. No, sometimes death can be a sweet release compared to the other things that might happen to the poor PCs.
Lasting consequences are fun ways for a Game Master to avoid outright killing player characters when the favor of the dice turn, while still keeping true to the notion that bad things can and will happen. Sometimes these consequences can make death look like a mercy. There are countless options to work with, but here are a few offerings for the truly sadistic GM that wants to spare their players the grief of losing a character.
1. Tarnished Or Destroyed Reputation
Sometimes it isn't the death of the character that your players need to worry about. Sometimes the death of the public's opinion of them can be far worse, especially in a long-running campaign. The actions of the characters, especially those actions that are decidedly out of their normal character, can have a severely detrimental effect on their reputations.
Friendly contact with rivals, be them nations, organizations, religions, or just the villain itself can skew how the public, government, or hierarchy views the PCs. Such things are considered scandalous and often tear their way through communities at breakneck speed as the best sort of gossip. Even if none of it is true, the perception of the public is changed.
Acts that seem counter-intuitive to the characters' natures can also have the same effect. A brutal character showing mercy to a smaller, weaker creature could alienate them in the eyes of harsh company that once had respect for them, like orc or barbarian tribes or inmates at a prison.
Such acts could also garner the attention of people or organizations with an already low public opinion who might wish to court the PCs, like a thieves' or assassin's guild, a cult to an evil God, or a powerful mage with their sights set on the throne.
The dismantling of these reputations can be something completely fabricated on the part of antagonists that don't take kindly to the PCs and their shenanigans. A calculated attack on reputations could be a fantastic distraction, an act of revenge, or a very roundabout means of forcing the player characters to turn to the villain for aid and/or safety.
"Took you long enough."
When a character's reputation is damaged, it could mean the end of support from the people or an organization they belong to, or any contact with said individuals is met with a degree of shame on their part. That, however, is the lightest of consequences. In the worst case scenarios, they are either deemed pariahs, heretics, or enemies of the state (and depending on transgression, all three). They could be shunned or chased from communities or hunted by organizations and governments that seek to put an end to whatever threat they may possess.
Those with positions of power or that hold a great deal of clout have the most to lose. A tarnished or destroyed reputation could ruin them both financially and socially. The damage for such a fall could take a very long time to repair if indeed it is salvageable at all.
Occasionally characters say or do things that may or may not be legal. Typical everyday things for them like assault, arson, blackmail, breaking and entering, bribery, burglary, destruction of privet or public property, deicide, forgery, gambling, inciting a riot, indecent exposure, manslaughter, piracy, prostitution, public intoxication, regicide, skullduggery, soliciting a sex act, or just plain murder is not often looked favorably upon in civilized society, especially done within the limits of a town or city and/or to the citizenry.
Let's face it; adventurers are not the most subtle of folk and sometimes have a tendency to act before thinking through the consequences. In these cases, most civilized societies have a plan for dealing with creatures that commit these undesirable acts.
They throw their asses in prison.
Prisons are not nice places. Depending on the society and timeframe you are working with they are either cold, dark dingy stone rooms of isolation or squalid hellholes where torture and death are commonplace. Depending on the severity of the crime they could be in one of these dungeons for weeks, months, or even years, that is if their crimes were not so serious as to warrant a stroll to the headsman's axe.
And if the player characters decide prison isn't their thing and attempt to escape, then they are committing a grave crime where the punishment is a severe lashing at best and a delightful neck accessory at worst.
"Hang in there."
3. Sold Into Slavery
Sometimes the bad guys don't kill PCs when they bring them to 0hp. Sometimes they take advantage of the unconscious form of the characters to make some extra coin. Characters are pretty phenomenal creatures able to do all kinds of things, and there are folks that would pay good money to own something like that. Ergo, it only makes sense that someone would act as a middleman in such dealings in this world of supply and demand.
And you know the old saying; if you can't beat them, sell their asses to the highest bidder. Well, technically you can beat them. You did beat them. But why should that have any effect on your 401k?
Slavery is a great way to spare characters the unpleasantness of death while subjecting them to the unpleasant world of indentured servitude. As far as consequences go, it is pretty memorable. If they were in the middle of doing something, they now have to concern themselves with escaping. Depending on how far away the taskmasters live, the new slaves may need to trek across a great distance and secure a means to get back to their lives pre-defeat.
As far as consequences go, few offer the degree of story options that a good old fashioned enslavement brings to the table. This could be a plot device to introduce a new land or people, a new villain or an already existing enemy, or even new NPCs or old quest goals (like a missing person).
Whether imprisoned or enslaved, folks in charge have a way of making sure they don't confuse the folks in charge with the folks breaking large rocks. If only there was a way to distinguish between the two...
Oh, wait! Branding!
No, wrong kind of branding...
...Now that's the stuff!
In days of yore (and among fetishists today), folks liked people knowing their property was their property, so they would put a personalized brand on things like cattle and people. Nothing quite cinches the deal like a red hot iron burning an insignia into your flesh. Brands were build to last, scaring the individual so that they carried with them the mark of their owner for the rest of their lives.
Purely a cosmetic consequence, branding can open a variety of roleplaying options. If the player characters escape incarceration or enslavement they can be recognized by the brands on their flesh and will have to take measures to hide them, if indeed they can be hidden. Escaped prisoners or slaves could find themselves constantly on the run, hiding their brands in hopes someone doesn't notice them and tip off the authorities.
"You've got a little something on... right there. You just... here, I'll get it."
Certain brands can tell different stories. For prisoners, brands can signify the crime(s) they are guilty of or what prison they are supposed to be rotting in. For slaves, a brand can signify the mark of the owner, the location where they are meant to be working, the type of job they have been delegated, or if they are a runaway risk. Placement of the brand on the body also plays a large role. Brands that can be hidden beneath a shirt or trousers signifies a degree of trust, whereas something on the face, neck, or hands could be a sign that the brand-barer is untrustworthy.
In fantasy worlds, these marks need not all be placed by a red hot iron. A magical brand can accomplish the same goal without marring the flesh. Certain degrees of magic can even compel those with such a mark emblazoned upon them to obey a command or experience agonizing pain should they attempt to escape.
5. Severely Damaged Appendage
Combat can be a wild and chaotic thing. The clash of steel, the whistle of arrows, the cries of those struck down in a whirl of blades and martial prowess. Occasionally someone gets lucky with a hit, and it finds its way into something vital. In a lot of cases, these masterful strokes or expert shots will kill the average person.
Players characters, however, are not average people. They're something above and beyond, and as such, they should be treated that way. After all, they are the main characters of your story. Sure, you could kill them, but then you are short a character and now the player needs to roll up a new one or wait patiently to be resurrected.
"I don't want to die without ripped abs."
Instead, I find that a long, permanent suffering can accomplish the same goal, and open up new options too. Enter the severely damaged appendage. Where a stroke might have killed a character, or at least brought them to 0hp, they are instead dealt a powerful blow. This could come at the destruction of an eye, a mangled hand, or an injured leg that leaves the character with a permanent limp. Whatever the case, the effects are lasting, probably for the rest of their life or until they find access to very high-level magics.
6. Lose An Appendage
Second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse! This is akin to the damaged appendage, except instead of having it maimed, it is altogether lost. This should impose some kind of penalty on the player character for a time after they've lost the appendage, but ought to be something they can either adapt to or overcome. If you are going to go hacking up PCs, you might as well give them some room to develop as characters.
- Eyes: Loosing an eye is an uncomfortable prospect. There are a number of different ways to accomplish this; a well-placed arrow, an unexpected dagger into the o'le socket, some feral beast, or even the dick move of plucking the sucker right out of their head. At least the character gets a cool eye patch out of the deal. Eye patches are badass. Ask any pirate.
"The more hardcore version of 'Got your nose'."
- Limbs: On a scale of Luke Skywalker to Jamie Lannister, losing a limb sucks. But it still beats dying. This could be something as small as a finger or a hand, to a whole arm or leg. This ought to hamper the PCs ability to do a good number of things until they learn to adapt to the lack of their limb, or until they find a suitable replacement. This could give the character some depth, or just show how driven they are. If a mage or swordsman, who both rely on their hands to do what they do best should loose one and somehow overcome the disability, they have earned their lifetime membership to the IBA (International Badass Association).
"And that was his wankin' hand, too."
- Other... Things: There are some things a person can loose that make losing a limb seem tame. They are things that I will not get into too much detail about. If you need any further explanation, simply ask Ramsey Bolton. His handy work speaks for itself. The loss of such a thing not only hurts a whole lot but can mar one's gender identity, having terrible ramification when dealing with the rest of the world as well as the perpetual torment of know a special part of themselves is gone.
"You can't see it, but I am cringing right now."
7. Lose A Soul
Any jackoff can loose a limb. But if you really want to get hardcore, take away that which makes them a person in the first place; their soul. What happens when the person part of the person is removed or destroyed and replaced with an empty husk of meat and synapses?
The possibilities for what ramification this could pose could be endless. Are they little more than a zombie? A living undead? Are they still a person? Is there desire, want, a will to carry on? Is this truly life, or a cruel mockery? What happens when you die and there is no soul to transfer over to the hereafter? Game Masters, you could have a lot of fun with this one, but your player may be concerned for their character's mortal soul...
...which is gone.
8. Lose A Loved One
You can maim and kill your players all day, but if you want to really hit home a consequence, don't kill them, kill what they love. Family, friends, allies, romantic interests, beloved NPCs, all are vulnerable, all can suffer.
If you are playing a villain, an especially cruel one that knows who the PCs are, instead of killing with that final blow, simply render the character unconscious and have the villain escape. Later, when all is peaceful, the villain hunts down one oof the PC's loved ones and kills them. No just kills them, but leaves them to be found by the PC to mock them.
The nice thing about this is it doesn't necessarily require the PCs to be in direct conflict with the villain. Their enemy could be a powerful noble, the head of a guild, or even a monarch. Players tend to run at the mouth on occasion, insulting people in a position of power because that is what they believe their character would do and because they know the GM will not kill them outright. Such insults in the presence of powerful individuals would get most people killed on the spot, but in this case with the snap of their fingers, the villain (you know, the kind with nearly endless resources) can have his people research the PCs, find out about the various relationships, and send them a message via assassin to their love one's home about what real power looks like.
If your players don't have much of a reason to despise your antagonist, this ought to tip the scales. Cries of vengeance with fists raised to the heavens are almost a guarantee.
"I rue the day I ever attempted to gaze upon this accursed sailboat!"
I could go on all day, but I think that is enough suffering for one day. Perhaps another article some day dealing with mentally assaulting characters instead of killing them. What creative ways have you used to impart consequences in place of death? Let me know in the comments.
Roll well, my friends,
+Ed The Bard
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