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Something Besides Death: Alternatives To Killing Characters

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?

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?

Reversing Death

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.

Crow Them

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.

1d8+1 Lives

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?

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Something Besides Death: Alternatives To Killing Characters"

#1 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On April 12, 2013 @ 10:51 am

I’ve used a few methods in the past when an actual death would be too inconvenient (for whatever reason).

1. Psychic vision – many of my games have at least one PC that has access to psychic powers or divine intervention. In this case, the acts are “retconned” into being a long, lucid vision.

2. Loss of XP (Phil’s Spend option). Reality is rewritten so that the PCs win, but they’ve lost their XP for the adventure.

3. Out of Commission (Phil’s consequences). The character isn’t dead, but is instead sidelined for the rest of the adventure while recuperating from that formerly mortal wound.

#2 Comment By clight101 On April 12, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

I used the Down with Consequence idea but I let the character recover over the course of time. For example once a character in a Pathfinder game I was running was killed.

I gave her the option of either dying or having her voice messed up so she had no voice. Over three sessions her voice recovered going from whispering to normal.

Another character was pretty messed up from tangling with a demon and a hag and should of died but instead he just needed to recover from the beating he took. His Fort Save was at -3 at first. Over three sessions he eventually got better.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On April 12, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

For the longest time I stopped killing characters and all that happened was that the players found more and more opportunities to bring down more violence on themselves secure in the knowledge that they wouldn’t die.

So now I kill ’em if the opportunity arises. If they want a character to survive, players should be able to assess the risk intelligently.

I only run games where Death is in the offing from the get-go (Call of Cthulhu) or the players can buy off damage as long as they have the bennies (Savage Worlds).

I truly live for those times when a player character who has been mowing down mooks with no thought for their wives and little ones nor for his own benny-plated survival suddenly looks up and says “I only have one benny left”.

Makes up for their killing my wild card bad guys with a couple of re-rolled shots.

And in Savage Worlds you never know. The character may just have fainted due to massive loss of blood, and be ready to go (with -3 on all rolls) in another ten minutes or so.

#4 Comment By Redcrow On April 12, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

I often play games that incorporate some sort of ‘Fate Point’ system to mitigate death, but aside from that I let the dice fall where they may. Very rarely do I create situations where the only choice is to fight, so its up to the players to decide whether or not any given fight is worth risking their characters lives. Every roll of the dice is a risk and your luck may eventually run out if you roll them enough times.

I also try to avoid games that use creatures/npcs as XP pinatas as that usually just encourages players to want to fight for the reward. YMMV.

#5 Comment By Willj On April 12, 2013 @ 4:53 pm

Depending on the NPC, sometimes not killing the PC can have far better ramifications for the story. If you want to really upset the player, try simply insulting them:

In a Pathfinder game, when introducing a bad guy, I had an opportunity where he was running away from combat, but the party’s Barbarian was hot on his heels. When the two had outdistanced the rest of the party, I had the BBEG cast hold person and make the Barbarian helpless.

Now, I could have had him coupe de grace the Barbarian, but instead I knew it would have far more emotional impact if I simply had the BBEG slap the held Barbarian across the face and then continue running.

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On April 12, 2013 @ 5:36 pm

I like it when a system has resources that can be spent to avoid death and mitigate consequences (like most FATE games), but play enough systems without those tools to have a plan for them too.

In most systems, I like to offer “Down with Consequences” type complications. In D&D, death is baked in, so I use the standard spells–with unusual access provided if the characters aren’t of a level to buy Raise Dead yet.

Retconning would be a good solution–something like Walt’s Psychic vision above–if I didn’t consistently flub with a resulting retcon worse than the original situation.

#7 Comment By Redbaeyr On April 12, 2013 @ 6:55 pm

I’m a fan of “fate *worse* than death myself, in many genres.

Flipping the topic around for a second though, what do you do when you are in the middle of a story and one of the players REFUSES to have his character come back? I’m talking about in a PATHFINDER-style game where such things are not THAT foreign? Just curious as to what people think of that twist on it.

#8 Comment By Gamerprinter On April 12, 2013 @ 8:56 pm

I’ve gone the other direction in designing a setting built for the reoccurring death syndrome – the Kaidan setting of Japanese horror. When PC Death occurs, one cannot be raised or resurrected, rather one rolls on the reincarnation chart, and either is damned to Jigoku (hell), transformed into an undead being (both small chances) or your soul attempts to possess a living being, of appropriate level, if successful it essential kills that person driving the previous soul out, and you awaken having reincarnated. There is no other afterlife. Anyone dying in Kaidan, can expecct this to happen.

We even have a one-shot module, Up from Darkness, built around this concept in a deadly dungeon, where players can expect multiple deaths in that single one-shot.

Instead of avoiding death, I’ve dived headlong into it more.

#9 Comment By Gamerprinter On April 12, 2013 @ 9:08 pm

Oh, I forgot to say… it’s for Pathfinder.

And for those who don’t die violent deaths, you might reincarnate as a baby, but PCs can expect the usual way.

#10 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On April 14, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

So what happens when the PCs are high enough level to be remarkable and kill similarly leveled villains? Doesn’t that imply the villains now possess the PCs? So with RAW it’s better to lose that fight and possess the villains than win and be possessed?

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#12 Comment By Gamerprinter On April 14, 2013 @ 1:31 pm

It doesn’t quite work that way. The mechanic chooses an available body in 100 miles, you don’t choose the body you possess and it doesn’t happen immediately – it takes up to 7 days. Also the realm is like Ravenloft with many powerful undead villains as ‘provincial rulers’ and they don’t have souls to possess with. Also PCs have a karma score determined by actions their character did in life – the person your soul takes over, must be in the same karma score range as you – undead villains are in a different range of karma then most PCs.

I adapted the Buddhist Wheel of Life construct (where unenlightened souls reincarnate after death) and combined it with the Japanese social structure – your karma score determines what social caste you are now, and where you will go in the next life.

It’s intended to be a much more esoteric setting than most.

#13 Comment By Gamerprinter On April 14, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

Also souls can fail to take over another body, then is relegated to becoming undead or a new born. Reincarnation is an attempt, it doesn’t always succeed.

#14 Comment By Rickard Elimää On April 15, 2013 @ 4:57 pm

I don’t get it. If you come to a point in your game where you don’t want the PCs to die, why have combat? If the lives aren’t any longer the investment in combat (which is why combats are exciting in the first place), what other investments could there be?

On another point. Fate points. If you must create/use a system with fate points, doesn’t that mean that you actually want another system where death isn’t that common (at least for the PCs)? I don’t want to read any “I think it’s good…” answers to this question. Honestly, think about it … then answer. Having fate points is in my opinion as bad as designing a game for rule 0. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Don’t try to patch a system to follow a style it wasn’t built for. Choose a system better suited for your purpose. Again, think about this … then answer.

In short: use a system that better suits your game style. A system, in this case, that brings out a question of what the consequence will be when the PCs are facing a dangerous situation.

#15 Comment By 77IM On April 15, 2013 @ 8:32 pm

It seems to me that in most RPGs, no matter how realistic the rest of the rules are, the damage+dying rules are somewhat unrealistic and fudged in the player’s favor.

#16 Comment By Gamerprinter On April 16, 2013 @ 9:35 am

As far as ‘old school’ goes, back in 1e days, dying PCs was the expectation, I seemed to have lost more than half my characters about 7th level. If you had an 18th level PC, you’d gone through 100 PCs to get one to survive for that long. Now a days, there are so many character options, so players have a greater attachment to their PCs, and don’t want them to die. I get it, but really don’t prefer the game to be any less lethal.