Monday, September 15, 2014

The Benefits of Player Killing

My tabletop RPG days began with the release of AD&D 2nd edition.  While I had flipped through the AD&D 1e books and had D&D toys, I did not actually start playing until 2nd edition.  I had read solo gamebooks before that, however, so it is fair to say that I was somewhat versed in the idea of RPG.  From those first days my group really didn't know the rules and as a result our first games were pure insanity.  We'd level out in one game session, so ignorant of the actual rules were we, and thus we developed a bad habit of getting bored quickly with a character and simply making a new one.  To further this imbalance we did not take many casualties.  It just wasn't the style of game we were playing.  Even in the deadly Ravenloft, the very Realm of Terror, we seemed to have supreme PC halos.
Well let's be honest here-nobody actually wants their character to die.  I have been thinking lately that our lack of character death was actually detrimental to our gaming.
Why, I ask, did we become bored and keep making then scrapping characters?
In one sense I believe it was because it was more fun to make a character, design it out, come up with a backstory and all than it was to play it.  The DM's plans rarely, if ever, really fit our idea of who our character was supposed to be, thus we found ourselves dissatisfied and looking for a new, better character.
In another sense, maybe we should have died much, much more.
Pre-planning your character to be the next Raistlin or Drizzt is probably not a good thing.  It is likely a much better idea to play a character and let it develop.  This allows the DM freedom to go with the flow and make interesting adventures.  But more importantly, without the threat of failure there is no thrill of victory.  The most memorable characters, the ones you value, are the ones that survive to do great deeds.  For that reason I make this suggestion to DMs, GMs, and referees of all types, and players need to accept this advice as well:
Kill player characters.
Kill the SHIT out of them.
Now I don't mean you should be malicious, because that is not fun for anybody but you and soon you will be playing alone.  I mean that the threat of character death is what gives this artificial life meaning.  It teaches the players to play smarter and value their characters.
It was not until I had been playing for years, after I joined up the Navy in fact, that I actually played one character and stuck with it for a long time.  I valued that character and he died early in the campaign only to be brought back.  Now admittedly he died because I was doing something stupid.  I was roleplaying.  Not the smartest way to keep a character alive, I admit.  I was fighting without my armor on and a goblin got a double crit backstab and wasted me.
I got better.  The mechanism by which I got better left me, the player, annoyed which led to a wish gone wrong which led to a time loop that led to a very exciting and satisfying campaign.  But what was established early on with that character's first untimely death was that the DM was a "let the dice fall where they may" rolling-out-in-the-open-crit-chart-using-sumbitch.  But we all learned to value our characters and I felt invested.  It was a good campaign.
Now some DMs aren't into that sort of brutal dice law gameplay.  They have grand plots, the framework of never-to-be-published novels they are writing, and they want everybody to be happy.  You can't make everybody happy.
You can, however, give a player a chance to value a character.  If my old DM had killed us a few more times, well we'd have been pissed, sure, but I think we would have adapted.  We wouldn't have gotten bored with our characters if we were always rolling new ones and eventually we'd come to cherish the ones that survived and got some levels.  When you pick the monsters and they are too tough for the players...kill them.  Or rather, let them die.  They are big kids-they'll get over it.
Because you are not Aragorn.  You are not the heir to the throne of Gondor.  You are not Frodo.  Hell, you are not even Pippin.
But you could be.  If the dice favor you and you play smart, you too can become king by your own hand and wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow.
But in the meantime, if some player makes a bonehead decision and the dice don't favor it.
Kill him.
And no bennies, and no fate points, none of those little tokens the players can use to alter the course of their fates/stupid decisions.
Let.  Them.  Die.
Then let them roll up a new character and get right back into the action.
Too many games these days are just not lethal enough.  They want to handicap the GM.  But I remember the words in the introduction to the AD&D 2nd edition Dungeon Master's Guide, "Your word is law, if the players don't like that kill the shit out of their characters."
Okay, that might not be the exact words, but we all know that is what they meant.


  1. Yes. There would've been bitching if I had killed yours or anybody elses character (with one exception and you know who wouldn't complain). Since then I have learned to let the players fuck up and not try to please everybody. After running a campaign for two years straight, I am a much better DM now.

    1. Except that time that you killed John's paladin, Sir Percy and we burned his character sheet on the BBQ grill. Or that time you let Chris kill John's half-giant Archon with a switchblade. I remember Cato let you kill yourself with a battle axe one time and I did let you kill your brother with a club upside the back of the head that one other time. That was actually pretty funny.

  2. I forgot Zentaph killed Archon! I also forgot the death of Sir Percy.
    Good times man, good times.

    1. Yes that was the famous "death knife" incident. To John's credit he did not demand a reversal and let Archon stay dead. Dissension in your ranks! As Bard's Tale III would say when you attacked your own party members.
      I seem to recall Archon reading the party the riot act about our "alignments" after the dead hooker incident that brought on the fight. Dead hookers, what are you gonna do?