I grew up in a world where death happened more like an accident. That world was the 1990s tabletop roleplaying and those deaths were rarely a satisfying experience. Death happened more like an error made in a videogame. Except unlike a videogame no one in a tabletop game had a quickload button.
Back then, it was the GM’s job to balance an abstract world with very concrete rule set to protect the players from the game itself. But with the recent resurgence of dungeon crawlers and the modern paradigm of story-before-stats tabletop games, we’re seeing systems that rely much more on player authorship and collaboration than careful GM monster balancing.
This new perspective on roleplaying gives GMs the leeway to introduce dangers to the players without allowing your player to cheat. The new paradigm permeates the parts of the games that were once considered the holy realm of the GM. It would be nearly unthinkable to ask a player what the name of an NPC was 20 years ago, and now we’re asking the heroes to take complete authorship with questions like, “How did you kill them?” and even down to the details of their own deaths.
With each new generation of game it becomes clearer that things that affect the agency of the players should always be, at least partially, in the hands of the player. And since character death is the ultimate for of loss of player authorship it stands to reckon that players should have some say as to how it goes down.
I never like killing characters but I have learned that death tells a good story and a damn good story if it’s done right. I’ve also learned that there are tricks to dong it without making your friends hate you, or feel like they want to give up on the whole game. So if death should happen how do we make death interesting?
I’ve discovered a secret; give your players shitty choices.
This idea developed organically with my first Dungeon World campaign. The players were outnumbered and in a perilous situation fighting an undead queen and her cursed castle’s minions.
At the very end of the game, our druid, Hycorax has the vampire queen latched onto her neck and she’s running out of vitae. It’s clear she’s going to go down in the next action unless she’s insanely lucky or someone does something. Kith, the fighter, decides to do something big. She’s atop a tall rampart looking down at the two grappling below. The mage also does something; Magic missiles fire from the mages fingers smashing against the druid injuring her even more. The evil fighter decides that dropping the castle gate on drained druid and her leech-ey companion. There’s a roll and yep, it looks like she’s going to die.
At this point I needed to make a decision; it’s time for this character to die, and I need to give her a moment, maybe of glory, maybe of complete and utter defeat.
I ask her, “The portcullis is dropping and you have moments to react. You can try to dodge it, knowing fully that this bitch is still sucking your blood and will probably kill you, or you can embrace her under the gate and probably take her out along with yourself.”
Sure, what I’ve done is presented a fact, “you’re going to die,” but I’ve still given her authorship over how it plays out. She can take the path of a survivor, game against the chance that the dice will roll low and she survives through mere luck , or she can play the hero, helping her compatriots (even the ones that dropped the gate on her) in the process, making her the hero. It’s a hard, shitty decision but it’s still authored by the player.
Sadly Hycorax didn’t die. The Dungeon World mechanics allow players to cheat death with a decent roll, but had she died, oh glorious it would have been!