I hate to kill characters. I am not opposed to it in the right dramatic circumstances, but for the most part I do not like killing characters. That flies in the face of my old school upbringing, and likely came about by the arbitrary deaths of some of my favorite D&D characters in my youth. Regardless of the reasons, I don’t like to kill characters. When this problem came up with a well placed rocket attack in my Underground game, it made me think that there are more things to do than to kill a character, even when the rules do not provide alternatives.
Payback is a …
This whole topic came out of my last Underground session. In short: the characters stole the car of a prominent local gangbanger to use for a job. The car got spotted, the gangbangers showed up in the middle of a fight the characters were engaged in, and they dropped a rocket into the group. The characters were damaged already from their fight, more seriously than I thought would happen in the encounter, and the rocket landed a pretty high damage roll. By the rules, one character was dead for sure and the other may not have made it.
In a rules-pure sense, that should have been it. Players, it’s time to roll up new characters. The problem is that these are two really good characters in terms of the story they are creating, and having them die before the story has reached any significant milestone was not satisfying to me – and I am sure it would have been less satisfying for my players. That is fine and all, but I just hit them with a rocket. There were no take-backs.
Something Other Than Death
As my Mother is fond of saying, I did not lick these ideas up off the ground. There are plenty of games that do a good job handling alternatives to death. After reading, playing, and running many games over the years, some of these ideas have stuck with me and have become integrated into my GMing style. So what are some alternatives to death?
- Reversing Death – Be it the 5th level cleric spell, a bacta tank, or a cortical stack, some games just get around the messiness and finality of death by just undoing it. In these games death is not really the loss of a character, but rather becomes a player-based resource issue to bring the dead character back to life.
- Down With Consequences – In this case, rather than killing the character you incapacitate them, thus eliminating them from participating in combat and adding an additional consequence to the character. That consequence could be that the character is captured by the enemy, looses a key piece of equipment, or suffers some kind of lost limb or scar.
- Spend Their Way Out – In games that have a player-based currency such as bennies, action points, etc, one could trade in their accumulated currency to be reduced to incapacitated. In some ways this is like the alternative above, but it has no lasting effect on the character and is more of a player-centric penalty.
- Crow Them – Rather than letting the character die, the forces of the universe decide that the character is too important to depart from the mortal coil and returns them to the land of the living, often with a mission. This is like some mixture of the first two alternatives, with the difference being that only the GM can perform this raising of the dead.
Putting Into Play
Some game systems have mechanisms built in to mitigate random character death, and when death occurs, the GM and players need only to follow the rules of the game to handle the situation. What about games that don’t have rules for character death? How can you use some of the techniques above?
This is only going to work when there is sufficient magic or technology in the setting to make reversing death possible. In more realistic modern settings, this solution won’t make sense and will come out ham-fisted or with the stink of GM fiat all over it. In settings of high magic and high-tech, a powerful organization can have access to the ability to reverse death that they will share with the party for a price, or the solution is cheap enough to put directly into the hands of the characters.
Down With Consequences
This is likely the most universal solution which a GM can offer. The GM should either offer up a consequence or work with the player to create one. The consequence can be permanent or temporary; it can be mechanical or story driven. My preference is for consequences which either advance the story or create a mechanical penalty, but never both at once. I like to give the player the option of dying or taking the consequence; never force it.
Spend Their Way Out
This will only work if you are in a system which you have some meta-currency that can be spent. If you do, then come up with a fair but strong charge for avoiding death. If your currency is something like Action Points, then taking all of them creates an issue for the remaining session and perhaps a few sessions afterwords until they can build back up some points. Another currency that can be used is experience, taking some number of experience to avoid death. This has its own consequences. In most games you can find some kind of currency to dock.
This is a solution that really works in settings of high magic or ones with deities who are hands-on in the affairs of man. Fantasy and Horror are the best settings for this kind of alternative. Much like Down with Consequences, I like to provide the player with a choice. They can come back to life, if they take on the mission for this deity, or they can just expire and pass on to the afterlife. For deities who are good the deal should be upfront with no catches. Deities who are not good should have loopholes, hooks, etc in their deals. In either case, always make it the player’s choice.
A Rocket To The Face
So the rocket explodes, and I roll the damage. One of the characters is dead, not even close to living – dead-dead. Underground does not have any rules for avoiding death, but I wanted an alternative. All but Crow Them was an option at this point, and I quickly decided on Down with Consequences. I told the player that he was not dead, but was incapacitated and that if he wanted to live there would be some consequence we would work out. The player decided on living, and as a result lost an eye. In game terms, the player will take a penalty to any skill check that requires depth perception. That penalty is permanent unless the character can get a cyber eye (which will require cash they don’t have).
The end result is that the player lived and the story we have been creating in the campaign will continue. There was a price to be paid for staying alive, and more importantly the characters learned not to be so bold as to be driving around in a prominent gangbanger’s car in their own territory.
In dramatic system games, character death at the wrong time can disrupt a good story. Some game designers provide mechanisms within the game to avoid character death. When a game does not, the GM is not without options. Used properly those options can avoid character death, without cheapening the experience, and turning it into something that enhances the overall story.
Do you let the dice fall where they may and let the characters drop, or do you skirt character death when possible? What techniques have you used to deal with character death? What techniques are your favorites and which ones rub you the wrong way?