Death & the Hero: Pulling the Trigger

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk in the DMing community floating around lately about when it is (and isn’t) appropriate as a DM to kill a player character.  This is a touchy subject with a lot of gamers, as a player’s character can be a very personal extension of their own personality, and — depending on how much time and effort you spent creating and playing the character — a fairly emotional event.

As a DM, you should not discount this trauma as trivial or inconsequential.

While the 4e rules concerning death and dying in the game are covered in both the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the effects of a character’s death last far beyond any given session.  As a DM, our monsters and creatures die all the time.  It’s no big deal for us.  That’s what they’re for, after all.  We forget that fact from time to time, and I for one have been accustomed to creating monsters with the sole purpose that they are to die.  A little morbid perhaps, but when a monster or enemy lives, it only makes it that much sweeter for me.  Plus, it sets up an almost guaranteed recurring enemy for the players, so we all win.

But characters die in Dungeons & Dragons, we can’t deny this.  It wouldn’t be much of a challenge if there was no consequence for failure.  It’s a fact of the game that where there are challenges there will be successes and, therefore, failures.  But I think perhaps some of the fault lies in viewing death as failure.  Do we automatically assume that death is the end?  How many times have the heroes faced ghosts, ghasts, vampires, ghouls, zombies, liches and other supposedly “dead” creatures.  If anyone should know better, it’s the heroes.

And then there’s Raise Dead.

You only need a part of the PC’s corpse that’s less than 30 days old.  Granted, it’s an 8th level ritual, but if you’ve got the 500 gold and a big enough town, there’s no reason your DM can’t make a cleric available to a low-level party.  And don’t forget about Gentle Repose, a 1st level ritual which extends that time period to 150 days.  What’s that you say? There’s no high-level cleric in your town?  That’s probably because your DM’s being a dick.

Seriously.  If the DM controls the world, and all the weather and monsters and people in it, and there isn’t a cleric of sufficient power to cast Raise Dead in your town, it’s because you are dealing with a malevolent being.  It’s pretty much my argument against God, too.

So when is it okay to kill a player character?

I’ll be the first to admit that not every player character makes it out of my games alive.  Characters have died in my game and been reincarnated (remember the random tables?), and some players have had to leave the game so they went out in a heroic blaze of glory.  Some PCs died when they were overwhelmed in the final boss encounter, and some fought their last fight when going up against too many kobolds.  But I never did it to be mean, or to “get some payback”, or to flex my power.  The DM is all-powerful.  No player can deny this — see Rule Zero.  As the DM, we don’t need to tell the players who’s boss.  If a DM really wants to kill off his party, then a) throw them up against the Tarrasque, and b) be prepared to not have those players come back.

The heart of the matter is that viciously (and needlessly) killing off a player character erodes the inherent trust in a roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons.  In computer games, we trust that a certain amount of neutrality and balance is built into the game.  In D&D, we have to trust the DM to be fair and impartial, and we rely on his (or her) interpretation of the rules.

Now, sometimes, let’s be honest, players do stupid things.  Every DM has experienced this.  Whether the players are trying to Bluff the gelatinous cube or engaging the drow queen with Diplomacy, tactics just aren’t every player’s strong suit.  Every DM has a different threshold for when character stupidity equates to character death, but my point is: If a character’s death serves no purpose, then why do it?  And don’t blame the dice.  If you want the players to live, they live.  Simple enough.  If it’s all truly the result of random dice rolls, then what do they need a DM for?

So when do you think it’s okay to kill off a player character?



4 Responses to “Death & the Hero: Pulling the Trigger”

  1. March 26, 2010 at 11:21 pm

    In my opinion: hardly ever. I totally agree with your point on trust, and then of course there is the point of fun. If my player really wants to negotiate with a Drow queen, let her! Imagine the fun that comes after. For example, the Drow queen could be amused by this sad attempt, and decide to enslave the player and keep her as a jester. Not sure what to do with the gelatinous cube though 😉

    But when a PC stops being fun, it should die.

    I remember an old adventure where I played Bart the Bard – a particularly annoying and malicious guy. Not malicious in the destroy-the-world-sense of the word, but the I-don’t-give-a-****-attitude that translates to maliciousness.

    In the beginning, he was great fun, both for me and even for the other players. Until the point where he stole their horses and followed the bad guy on his own (to get more treasure). A few hours later, the other players found a Bart-shaped pile of ash; killed of by a fireball.

    I’ve always agreed with the DMs decision to kill that particular character.

  2. March 26, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    It’s a fine line to walk, to be sure. Some DMs believe that they have all this power so they should use it…

    Definitely see your point about Bart the Bard. Sadly, not every character has the stamina to go the distance. But that’s okay — not every character is meant to achieve epic status.

    But killing him off DID push the story along for the other players. They learned a lesson about being careful who to trust, and hopefully gleaned a bit of information about the spellcasting abilities of their enemy. And of course, now they can seek revenge for their fallen comrade. 😉

  3. March 31, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    I think it depends on the type of game you’re running. If it’s a stand-alone game, I will kill characters off if the dice rolls go that way and it makes the overall scene more entertaining.

    For my current campaign however, I’ve decided to run each tier pretty much like the season of a cable television show in which the player characters make up the main cast.

    In your average show, the lead characters aren’t killed off every other episode. Because that’s no fun, which means loss of interest (which in the world of tv means lower ratings). That said, in many cable shows characters are killed off from time to time – often around one or two per season.

    Though I haven’t done it with this group yet, I’ve used “redshirt” players in past campaigns – typically a guest with a pre-rolled character who jumps in for a session or two and is killed off for dramatic effect later.

    Dramatic is definitely the only way to send a character out. If you’ve watched an entire season of some show, you’ll want a nice juicy death to whomever has to bite it. For that reason, pcs are pretty much unkillable while fighting average encounters (they can still get maimed, crippled etc, which can be scary enough). If a henchman does kill a character, you can bet the villain was standing right next to him when it happened, laughing.

    I also encourage my players to come to me if they want to try a different character – without telling the other players – so I can set up a good kill scene for the “retiring” pc in an upcoming encounter.

  4. August 11, 2011 at 12:15 am

    I’d say it depends on what kind of game you’re playing, whether it’s a one shot adventure, or a long campaign. If it’s a one shot, then every adventure has different heroes, and I think it makes the story better, more dramatic you could say, if one of them experiences death. It could be huge – Collapsing cave: “Go my friends! I will slow down this minotaur, save yourselves!” – or it might be getting shot mid fight, falling on the sidewalk, while other characters are shocked. Just don’t let them die at the beginning, so your player won’t be sitting bored, for the rest of the game (you could let him play a NPC). If it’s the campain, then I’d say let them survive until the end. You could let them have their raise dead and other ways throughout the story, but be sure to give them disadvantages for dying, so they know it’s the real deal. They might loose an arm, an eye. Their personality may be hampered. Then, if they survive until the big boss, drop the safety rules and let them die truly, if the situation calls for it. It will make the ending more memorable. Of course, if the players endanger themselves because of their stupidity, let them die. Anyway, I was speaking from experience, and you should not make my mistakes: At the end of one of my first serious rpg campaigns, I really wanted at least one of my players to die. So I created a ridiciously high damage fire spell, that a mage cast. Two PC jumped out of it’s way, but the fighter burnt to death. They dealt with the mage, and ressurected their friend using a soul vial they acquired much much earlier. But when they had to return to a castle, which the main boss was supposed to attack (Tzeentch, it was a Warhammer adventure), the same PC had to die due to an illness that’s been destructing his body for a few weeks. He missed the rolls and I let him die, which was stupid. Then again, I hadn’t had much experience as a DM yet. BUT IT GETS BETTER. During an Oh My God Huge Castle Battle With Demons And Shit Flying Everywhere, PCs brought their dead rotten friend to a holy altair in a temple, where all the priestesses were. I let them roll, so that the player won’t miss the final fight, and the holy magic etc etc revived him. Yeah… But! When Tzeentch was fighting the PCs something really awesome occured, he influenced them to betray their King and join his demon forces (it was all roleplay), and they did, they killed the remaining defending forces.. and shot an arrow through the fighters head. Because he was Good and wanted to protect the king. That was a really great moment, PCs turning on each other, but considering the fact that THE SAME CHARACTER died twice this session, well, you know yourselves. But it was a good moment nevertheless with lots of twists, switching sides, and finally killing Tzeentch.

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