Behind the Screen: Killing Players…

2009 August 25
by Dante

I had the great opportunity to take part in a panel at GenCon called the GM’s Jam with Zach from RPG Blog 2, Chgowiz from Old Guy RPG Blog, Tony from RPGCentric, and bonemaster from The Bone Scroll.  It was cool, the first time I’ve ever been on a panel purely dedicated to giving the same style Dungeon Master advice that I give here only live.  We even had a room full of people!

Events like this are a veritable cornucopia of good blogging topics, so I’m going to take one of my favorite audience questions of the day: Do you kill players in 4e, and if so how?

Why yes, yes I do.

The question has its roots in the mechanics surrounding how easy that it is to heal yourself with healing surges and other effects, the person asking the question found it hard to inflict enough hardship to exhaust the party enough to make things threatening.

Thanks to some good advice from the rest of the panel, we generally arrived on an interesting solution: put the players in a situation where it is hard or difficult to retreat, then goad them on with milestones to push them past the point of comfortable healing.  You can expand this notion by ramping up encounters, or structuring your battles in waves where the party has a difficult battle nearly to the end and then the enemies raise an alarm or gain reinforcements.  This gives you a fresh batch of baddies and can put your players in a very bad way quickly.

Taking a page from The Master

The other option that I brought forth was to put the players in a Gygaxian Death Scenario.  Get them on the edge of a portal to the abyss.  Throw them off of a hundred story tall tower.  Kill them in a way that 36 points of healing won’t fix.  There’s a great example of this at the end scenario in Keep on the Shadowfell.  If you don’t want to know exactly what happens, read no further….

Fair warning…

At the end of Keep on the Shadowfell, an epic battle takes place right by the rift between planes.  A creature fights to get out, and each failed save within a certain range pulls you one square closer to the portal.  Touch the portal and you can forget about growing old with your grandkids.  No amount of healing surges will save you from getting sucked unexpectedly into an inter-planar rift.

Tread lightly, traveler…

Everyone on the panel had similar advice: indiscriminately killing your player characters can be jarring, and its generally a good idea to set some ground rules whether or not this is expected in your campaign.  If it is, slay away!  If your group isn’t a big fan of this, fear not!  It is rather hard to kill players via normal means in 4e, and you always have the rare circumstance that your players may eventually come to you asking if their character can go out in a blaze of glory.  Then you get the unique opportunity to engineer an epic player death scenario as a planned end to a character’s story.

I’ve gotten the opportunity to do this a few times myself over the years, and it is an interesting dynamic.  Most players are still sad to see their character go, even if you have planned it out ahead of time.

So what say you, gentle reader?  Do you kill players in your campaigns, and if so, how?  It’s always fun for us to sit in the lounge at the DM’s Social Club swapping stories of waxing scores upon scores of characters!  Let’s hear from you!

13 Responses leave one →
  1. August 25, 2009

    It never works out quite like I’ve planned it. Two characters have died so far in my current campaign, and one is (more or less) a Sorrowsworn now, while the other made some kind of deal with Asmodeus. They’re both still around, they can’t stand each other, and the rest of the party is suspicious. And I think our ranger is a wolf now? She wasn’t even that low on HP, so I have no idea what happened there.

  2. August 25, 2009

    I killed all my PCs by designing an encounter that was too hard. They weren’t happy with me for that…

  3. Dante permalink
    August 25, 2009

    It’s a fine line… one or two characters stay alive and everyone is relieved and happy when the fight is over, but kill them all and they hate you.

    Life is tough behind the screen.

  4. August 26, 2009

    Some good advice here!

    Though I sincerely hope you don’t actually go about killing your players … surely that would lead to very few games in short order?

    *ducks flying brick* ;3

  5. August 26, 2009

    I think most of the gamers I hang with locally are somewhat “Old School”. They view something like a TPK, as failure on their part to effectively deal with situation. Now sometimes the foe is too strong. I think players (as well as myself when I play rather than GM) sometimes forget that running away is always a valid option.

  6. Ken Marable permalink
    August 26, 2009

    *gulp* I hope you mean killing player CHARACTERS, not players! 😉

    I’ve always been one to outright avoid PC death if possible. The groups I have played in have still found things plenty challenging and threatening without wondering if they could die in any battle.

    Now it has happened on occasion (so it’s possible, even in my games), but since it’s so rare, it is a major event in the campaign. If and when the PC is brought back to life, it is a life changing event.

    Of course, I’m not saying it’s better or worse, just that it works for me.

  7. August 26, 2009

    A great topic for sure, I believe I’m slowly realizing the issue with it in 4E is that whenever I run an encounter and any player gets close to dying, the PCs start to use all of their daily powers and tricks, so if there is a potentially deadly encounter that effectively marks the end of them wanting to continue because they then feel incredibly vulnerable. I’m constantly trying to tweak and change things to make my encounters more challenging and enjoyable, and the players seem to think they’re working from what I hear!

  8. Ryven permalink
    August 29, 2009

    In our games, character death never occurs without player permission. While this sounds “soft”, I would argue in fact that quite the opposite is true. A dead character feels no more pain. We rotate GMs (and game systems) fairly regularly and have a running competition to see who can drive the other players’ characters to the depths of madness with the most creativity and panache. Death is mercy for us. >:)

  9. January 16, 2010

    I’ve been toying with the idea of killing the two PC’s in my group at the very start of a campaign, then the rest of the campaign is new characters fighting for revenge.

    seems harsh though, havn’t built up the bottle yet!

  10. Dante permalink*
    January 16, 2010

    That sounds interesting… would the players of the two killed PCs be playing new characters in the rest of the campaign, or would they be continuing on as part of the storytelling as spirits or something?

  11. January 17, 2010

    Well the idea was to make them heroes of thier village, they die defending it. Then two other young men (new PCs) from the village try to avenge thier deaths.

    I don’t have the heart to do it… yet

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