The Agony of Killing PCs

I kinda want to kill a Player Character. But I’m finding it difficult to justify doing so…

I wrote about this once before in a very, very early blog but that piece is significantly rougher, and it’s a different from the position I now find myself in. My forthcoming campaign is a horror game. I’m doing a Ravenloft campaign and my players are going to be everymen. They’re little more than 0-level NPCs and definitely not heroes. I want them to be afraid of death, which means death has to be a real possibility. Therein lies the problem.

The Paradox

I want death to string and be more real: no resurrection magic and no punches pulled. I want to be fair yet mean, so if the Player Character makes a mistake it might very well cost them their life, just like making a bad call in a horror movie likely ends in death.

But I also don’t want cookie-cutter player characters that are just collections of numbers. I want characters to have goals and aspirations, dreams and desires. I’m requiring the PCs to have back stories and backgrounds, so I can build adventures around the PCs. This way they’re part of the story and the world, and the campaign’s adventures directly involve them instead of the PCs just happening into trouble.

This leads me to the dilemma: if the players have spent a couple hours writing a back story it sucks to have that character die. While being more attached to the character means the player is less likely to act stupidly, each death does mean hours or more working and fitting the new character into the interconnected party.

It gets even trickier given I’m not letting my party take PC classes until they gain a level. Yet, to make something resembling a balanced party they need to know what classes they’re thinking of taking. So there’s some forethought and anticipation and planning. Which, if the character dies, is all for naught.

And now assassination is just the only way

Initially I considered working a player death into the first couple sessions, planning to twack a PC to strike fear into the players.

This is a little Joss Whedon, who added a character to Angel just to kill them and make the audience think everyone was mortal. Which was also something Mr. Whedon had wanted to do for the pilot of Buffy (with Xander and Willow’s friend Jesse) but didn’t have the spare cash to add the character to the opening credits for a single episode (and thus Jesse is never mentioned again).

I was going to conspire with my wife or someone else to have their character be killable, so they could spend less time on their character and thus not feel the sting of death as sharply. But this felt unfair; my wife would still have to spend some time writing a background and thus would end up spending more time total writing backgrounds than the rest of the table.

And plans have a way of going awry, so with my luck she would have survived. Or I’d have to stretch to find a way of killing her, making it look like I’m unfairly targeting her or going out of my way to kill her character. This might be more than a little off-putting to the rest of the table.

If the opportunity presents itself, I still might kill her character. Killing a PC in the first adventure is too dramatic to skip. But I don’t want it too planned.

Fear of Death

Another potential problem is fearful play. This is somewhat good for a Ravenloftgame – or any game trying to add a dash of 1e cautious explorative play – but bad for anyone who wants to Play Boldly.

I think the Play Boldly initiative really emphasises the difference in play between 4e and old school games. I started being a little bold in my 3e games, trying to be the one to take the plunge and open the door or touch they shiny object and generally not letting the game get hesitant. It really works well in 4e where there are far fewer consequences for bumbling into a room and moving heedlessly.

But if bad mistakes lead to a most painful death… playing boldly becomes a little more discouraged. If the monsters are deadly enough to kill instantly, if there is the threat of being separated from the party, or if you’ve already lost a PC, then you might be much more hesitant and much less bold.

And nothing is more bold than asking “why don’t I just stay home and let someone else adventure?” Which is the big question. If you strike too much fear into the players they won’t want to lose their characters to the seemingly inevitable. Some players get really attached to their characters, and losing them is like losing a friend. And there’s the logical question of “why does anyone become an adventurer when they have an average life expectancy measured in weeks?”

Functional Immortality

The trouble around building a campaign around a PC is it makes them functionally immortal. Especially when you bring in prophecy or being a “chosen one”.

This is one of the more notable ways in which D&D and RPGs diverge from inspirational source material. Fantasy and speculative fiction is rife with Chosen Ones and children of destiny, and heroes burdened with a destiny. Aragorn is the lost king of Gondor and destined for the throne. Harry Potter is destined to kill Lord Voldemort and their lives are intertwined. Star Wars has Anakan Skywalker and Babylon 5 has Jeffrey Sinclair. But heaven help you if you make one of your PCs a “chosen one”.

I’m toeing the line of this, planning a couple future sessions based on what I already know of my characters. One of the players has made the curious decision of playing a young child, which just opens up so many possibilities and story ideas that it’s hard to avoid that PC becoming the centerpiece of the campaign. I also known what PC classes the characters are thinking about taking, so I’m looking at ways to accommodate their choices. Such as a spellbook being found as treasure to justify one of the characters becoming a wizard. As such, it’s hard to imagine killing those characters as there is the narrative plans. Killing them would just prematurely end their story arc. And eliminate fun story ideas I really want to tell. It’s bad for both the player and the DM. But having an unkillable character isn’t much fun either…

One of my players has opted to play a small child. For story reasons mostly, as he likes the idea of a kid whose imaginary friend becomes real and is a horrible monster. But I’m hesitant to attack or kill his character as the idea of violence against children makes my skin crawl. Hurting a child “on screen” at the table is one of those lines I don’t want to cross is on, including rape and hurting puppies and kittens. So there’s the Catch 22 of the player I don’t want to hurt but I have to injure or he becomes noticeably immortal and the arms race begins. I buy semi-automatic weapons they by automatics. I wear Kevlar and they buy armour piercing bullets. I kill their characters except the twelve-year-old and they all roll up pre-teens as replacements. Suddenly my Ravenloft game has descended into the Monster Squad.

With no fear of death the tone of the campaign I want is lost. You cannot have a horror game if no one dies and all the monsters are paper tigers. There needs to be risk for there to be fear. But actually killing a PC is so darn tricky and could backfire. And if I TPK the story ends.