GM Advice: Why Killing PCs Is Good For Them

Everyone dies.

Yeah, it is a bit of a dark way to start things off, but it is true none the less. All living things will eventually meet their end. People, worlds, even immortal beings like Gods, everyone and everything will eventually feel the cold hand of death upon them. It is one of the few, constant inevitabilities in the universe.

So, I find it hard to believe that at some gaming tables a few Game Masters outright refuse to kill player characters. I don't mean the "Dick GM" who is actively trying to kill off PCs for fun and profit. Those guys are festering wart on the anus of our hobby that desperately need to reevaluate their definition of fun.

No, I refer to the actual threat of character death. You may have seen these GMs in the past. You may have been one. They are the Game Masters who, when confronted with an honest to goodness kill, will do everything in their power to retcon the scenario so that the PC continues to draw breath. Death in an RPG can come from a number of things. A well-placed crit, an explosion of damage dice, a sinister trap, or even a powerful foe can mean the end of a character. Hell, there are spells whose sole purpose it is to kill.

And though many may disagree with me, those things should result in death under the right circumstances. Those circumstances consist of not having enough remaining hit points to withstand the damage, or rolling a save too low to save themselves. Harsh as it may be, that is the reality of adventure.

 The threat of death in an RPG exists to show your characters that their profession (adventuring) is not an easy one, and any wrong move could mean a horrifying end. For the players, that end means that their character, which they built and have come to love, is gone. It is a sobering prospect to lose one's character. Believe me, I know.

But, it's all for the best.

Example Time!

Meet Jeff. Jeff is a Game Master. Jeff loves his group, which consists of close friends. Jeff was really excited by tonight's adventure. The party had discovered a kobold-infested cave last week, which they slaughtered with reckless abandon. In this evening's session, they discover that the cave is really just one entrance into a dragon's lair. Everyone is excited, Jeff included. They spend an hour deciding whether or not to attack the dragon or head back to town and resupply. In the end, they decide to throw caution to the wind and charge balls to the wall into the dragon's den. A harrowing fight unfolds as both the party and the dragon keep exchanging the upper hand.

The dragon unleashes its fiery breath. The rogue makes her save, the fighter his, and the cleric hers, but the wizard, who was standing closely to deliver a particularly devastating touch spell, did not make his save. The battle has been grueling, and the wizard had already taken some damage. With only a few hit points left, the dragon's breath reduced the wizard's hit points well below the point where he would be killed instantly.

 "Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and good with ketchup."

The player is in shock. He has been playing that wizard for 10 levels and is feeling a bit upset about the whole thing. Jeff feels bad, so he tells the player that because of all the ruckus, a stalactite hanging from the ceiling of the cave had dislodged and landed in front of him, taking the brunt of the dragon's fire, reducing his hit points to straight up 0 and allowing the cleric to swoop in and save him.

The wizard lives! The party defeats the dragon. Everyone goes home happy, right?

Except Jeff didn't help out the wizard, he did the wizard and all of his players a disservice.

Let's break it down. The wizard was low on his already low hit points. The player made the conscious choice to ignore the warning sign of low hp and went charging in to touch a rampaging dragon, a creature that could have torn his character apart any number of different ways. The player gambled with his character's safety in order to gain an advantage by delivering that spell.

It was a gamble that, in this case, should have ended with a charred corpse. Instead, the Game Master relented, and the wizard suffered no repercussions for his actions aside from being out for a round while the cleric began the healing process. When one gambles for a possible gain, and there are no negative consequences, that isn't a gamble, it's an ensured outcome.

"I'll call."

But wait a minute Ed. Aren't you supposed to empower your players?

Yes, but not at the cost of removing any repercussions for their actions. If Jeff does this enough, his players are going to realize that they can pretty much do whatever they want without having to worry about their characters dying. How many of them do you think will firewall that information, and how many do you think will exploit the living hell out of it?

I know this all too well. I used to be "Jeff". I never wanted to let the PCs die. I would go out of my way to think of creative ways to keep them alive. I would fudge damage rolls, "miscalculate" hits so that the mortal blow missed their AC by a single point, or lowballed what the save DC was on a spell or trap, all so that they wouldn't have to roll up a new character and I wouldn't have to feel bad for killing them.

And they got wise. And they got brave. And then bravery lead to stupidity until ultimately they thought themselves unkillable.

Then it happened.

I was running the White Plume Mountain (an excellent adventure) for some friends when they came upon a giant bubble that was home to a massive crab. The crab was fierce and soon had a party member in its clutches. The creature attacked another character and missed horribly. The miss (a natural 1 on my part) ended up bursting the protective bubble they were all inside. Outside the bubble were thousands of gallons of boiling water that came rushing in all at once. The party attempted to save their friend, trapped in the claws of the crab. Ultimately the could not, and the entire party boiled alive. I could think of no way out, no way for them to escape this time.

It was a TPK.

"In White Plume Mountian, crab eats YOU!"

I have never killed a character in my life. And at that moment, I killed everyone. From that moment on, those who knew me as a Game Master looked at me differently. Word spread among my friends of Ed The Player-Slayer. I had gained a reputation overnight as the kind of GM that doesn't mess around. The kind that kills characters.

After that, folks were initially afraid to play in my games. After all, who wants a dead character? In time, they came around. They found me to be tough, but fair. They played smarter, took calculated risks, and otherwise enjoyed the hell out of the games we played. In truth, they felt more challenged by everything, and each new accomplishment was well earned. In my more merciful days, my players would just go through the motions to get a reward. When they thought I might end their characters without a second thought, those rewards meant something, every battle was tense, and every monster was a threat.

It didn't detract from the game, it enhanced it. A fear of death made the game more enjoyable.

"The face of fun."

Know When To Roll Em, Know When To Fold Em
Despite my reputation as a ruthless and efficient PC murderer, I have only ever slain seven characters in thirteen years. That is because when it comes to death, I know in which situations survival is acceptable, and death is assured.

I only ever "kill" characters when dealing with a boss, or when their actions bring death upon themselves. For instance, if the fighter only has a handful of hit points and the decide to charge the hydra, there is a good chance they are going to become a meal right quick. If there is a big, shiny gem that has a sign hanging over it that reads "DON'T TOUCH" in big threatening letters, the one that touches it is going to have a bad time.

It was the late, great Gary Gygax that said: "The worthy GM never purposely kills the players' PCs, he presents opportunities for the rash and unthinking players to do that all on their own."

I take that quite as gospel. Game Masters actively trying to kill characters is absurd and childish, but leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for those who act before they think is clever. You are setting a trap for the foolhardy. It is almost like a game... a role-playing game.

In that respect, it also helps to know when to stay your hand. Aside from the players keeping track of their characters' hit points, I too keep a running tally. This is helpful in knowing not only how much damage they have taken, but how much they have left. If the characters get into a generic fight and find themselves reeling thanks to a couple lucky rolls, I am more likely to show a bit of mercy when the damage dice come rolling on out.

"Can I borrow some d6s? I am a few short for this spell."

 The fighter could be doing exactly what they need to be doing, but if they take four crits in a row from the orc with the greataxe, that isn't their fault, and I am unlikely to punish the player for my stroke of luck. Sure, I may reduce the fighter to 0hp, have the orc get away, and use him as a recurring villain, but that's just good storytelling.

However, you should never reveal this to your players. They may come to rely on it. Let them sweat. Let them worry about the reputation you may have as a hardass. Let them learn from their mistakes and become better players and better characters because of it. This is what I like to call the illusion of danger. Only you, the Game Master, know when the lives of their characters are really in danger. Pull the right strings, flub the right rolls, and they may think they are on the brink of death a countless number of times, and they may never know they're not.

Besides, that's why they have resurrection spells.

Roll well, my friends,
+Ed The Bard 

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