Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Killing PCs

When I run a game, I admit, I am hesitant to kill PCs.

Usually part of this is due to the fact that I want the players to really dig their characters, put a lot of effort in to them, love playing them. They're NOT just a piece of paper or a pawn on a chessboard.

That said, I want their experience to be fun, scary, with a constant threat of danger and possibly even mortality.

If a PC is to die, I really want it to happen in a meaningful way if at all possible (though in a grim Dark Heresy-kind of game, it's perfectly understandable for even a PC to die in a meaningless's the nature of the grim future).

I tend to build up NPCs and get the PCs close to them, but I also have a tendency to sacrifice them for the sake of a dramatic scene.

PCs though, unless they are patently stupid and doing what they know will likely result in death...I probably won't let them die.

Part of this is that in my games, I hate the idea of protagonists and antagonists fighting to the death every time a weapon is drawn. It's just ridiculous. When things look grim for the antagonists I'll secretly roll to see if they cut and run. Live to fight another day. Recurring bad guys. Unless the antagonist is mindless like a zombie or skeleton or'll think twice about staying in the fight after half his buddies get smeared all over the room.

I expect the PCs to consider this as well. Not every encounter is designed to be "won". Sometimes the PCs wander in to the Bad Guy Home Base and realize they are woefully outgunned and need to RETREAT!

I guess it comes down to choice.
I try and give my players and their characters lots of choices, and with this comes a lot of rope to hang themselves. I try to be really up-front about what characters notice: give them plenty of chances to realize what the situation is and if/ when they get in over their heads.

They set the stakes and if they choose to bid high, or go "all in" then they CAN die and I won't be as forgiving with the rolls. I won't however sneak up on them and blindside them with situations they will not be able to get out of. They might get snuck up on with a situation out of their league, forcing a retreat...but they have plenty of "outs".

In order to do this...sometimes I fudge rolls.
It's true.
I also roll my dice all the time out of habit, so only half the time it's for a purpose. I also call for lots of random rolls that mean absolutely nothing. Especially good or bad rolls on either side of the screen can have an impact somewhere.

So how do you guys do it? What are your thoughts on killing PCs and fudging die rolls?


Gamer Dude said...

Hey Jeff,

I'm of two minds actually.

I'm not particularly fond of story driven or heavy plot induced games. They tend to be linear and therefore the characters are fairly assured of not running into something that they're not supposed to before the appointed hour. It's like a video game.

So if a character dies in a game like that it's usually either a gross misstep or they were just very unlucky. Killing a character in a game like that has fairly serious consequences. It's a lot tougher reintegrating the new character seamlessly.

Now, in a sandbox style game, death seems to be something that's a little more "accepted". Personally I think it has something to do with the way the game is woven, it tends to be a LOT less linear in an attempt to represent distinct player choices. But I'm certainly no expert. I'm just an average joe who's been playing this game for far too long.

I have fudged rolls for my daughters. I WILL continue to fudge rolls for my daughters, but it's not often. I'm selfish, I want them to continue to love the game. They're young yet too, so I don't want to pop that bubble.

Funny story, and this has a little bearing on your question from the player's perspective. I'm currently playing in a 4E game. It's just started but it's VERY gritty and deadly. Zombie-pocalypse basically. So anyway, our DM says, make sure that you've got at least one back up character. I groan.

Now in some versions of the game (and other retro-clones) that wouldn't be an issue. Why? Well it takes all of 15 minutes to whip up a character. Sometimes less. You get an idea, you roll some dice you do some outfitting and presto, you've got your next character. Not so in 4E. At least for me.

It takes me a solid hour, on the inside, to make a character. I'm slow, I don't know the rules all that well and there are a slew of choices to make. Granted, you could probably do it faster by taking the pre-generated scores, names and builds. But I'm not a fan of that, it feels like cheating.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that from the player's perspective the rules have a bit of an impact on how well received PC deaths are. If it takes a god's age to create a new character then, no thanks.

Jeff said...

I think what I shoot for is considered story based...but story based in retrospect only.

Very much NOT linear. The PCs end up with a wide variety of options and I really have no idea where they are going. The story follows them.

I tend to work on several different levels at a time, so in the setting things are going on: antagonists have a plan, or not. Protagonists have a plan, or not. Things are going on all over the place. The PCs...they can get involved in any number of things, and really, wherever they go and whatever they do...that's where The Plot is. I just easily shuffle things around.

I don't believe in the dichotomy of Story vs Sandbox. Story doesn't have to mean The GMs Story. It's kind of sad that sometimes it does.

Gamer Dude said...

Sure, I absolutely believe that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive in any way, shape, or form. Unfortunately I think that a LOT of DMs run their games as such though.

A very heavy-handed hook is akin to a clue-bat to the side of the head. In my book that's uncool...and it hurts. ;-)

One of the things I've come to find, and I hope I'm not wandering too far off topic here, is that a world encompassing plot line is really too much in this game. Well, let me qualify that, I think it's too much for the guys I play with.

Take Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil for instance; about 1/2 way through that whole thing the players are chaffing at the bit and wondering what's keeping them from doing something more sensible as it relates to their PC. It takes a lot of work as a DM to make sure that players stick to the plot when it comes to a time sensitive, world-encompassing plot like that. Not my style at all.

Rather I think it makes more sense to seed w/ small "mini-plots" and let the characters take the ball and run from there. You can grow the plot in a holistic manner that way...and your players already have personal motivation.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that I completely agree with you. ;-)

Jeff said...

Yeah, I think the folks I play with chafe if I'm too sandbox-like, or dungeon crawly as they end up felling like...well...what's the point? Is that all there is? They kind of want purpose.

On the flipside, they don't want to be led by the nose either. It's such a fine line to tread.

Sometimes I do better than others, but the overall goal is to have a bunch of "seeds" ready to go, and really just see where the PCs want to go.

I think if there ever was an axiom for any of this is that PCs wander around and do weird things that GMs never thought of, and it's best just to roll with it.

I think to be a good GM, you need to be quick on your feet and be able to flex any-which way because if you plan tightly...I can guarantee the players will break the plan before you open a bag of doritoes.

Zweihander said...

Kinda late to the party, I know, but the guilt I feel as a DM about killing off a PC is in direct proportion to the time it took to make it. When I ran Exalted, every time the a PC got close to death, I could only think back on the 1 1/2 hours it took to make the PC and how that would be repeated, while everyone else is playing.

The next campaign I'm running is BFRP, it takes about 10 minutes to get a new character off the ground if you want. They can shuffle off the mortal coil without much pity from me. :)