‘Til Death Do Us Part: Death and the GM

Death and GMs have a very interesting relationship with each other.  In most traditional role-playing games, the GM is the one that directly controls the difficulty of the game.  After all, someone has to pick and choose what challenges the group will face.  As long as the players get along reasonably well, the GM will probably be the one that dishes out the most fatalities.  There are some that say that the game master is the god of the world, that they control every aspect of the game, and that players live and die at their whim.  While it’s true that the GM does hold a lot of power, there are certain responsibilities that they must keep in mind in order to provide a compelling game to the players.

Life and Death Hang in the Balance

Before we go any further, let’s make one thing clear: GMs are not gods.  It is a lot more accurate to say that they are just another player at the table. Sure, they volunteered to give up playing a character in order to represent all of the other people, creatures, factions, etc. in the game world.  But just because they’re willing to participate in the game in a different way from the other players doesn’t mean that they all of a sudden matter more as a person.  Everyone has equal importance at the table.  Got that?  Great!

So, if the GM is not a god of life and death, then what are they?  That is, specifically in the context of ‘death’ in role-playing games.  Well, for one, they help establish the tone of the game that everyone has agreed to play.  For instance, a high-powered fantasy game is going to treat mortal threats differently than a suspense horror about a stalking murder.  It’s up to the game master to tweak the experience to establish a feeling of verisimilitude – of realism.  Maybe that quest for realism is why so many systems include mechanics for character death.  Without rules to cover everything up to a character’s dying breath, how will we ever completely emulate real life?

I for one don’t really see the need for that, in most cases.  Role-playing games tend to take a lot more cues from media than real life – stuff like movies, TV shows, books.  I can’t think of any fictional heroes that failed to climb a wall and bled out after falling ten feet.  There are plenty of genres where it doesn’t make sense – where it’s not even on the table – for a character to suffer a life-ending setback.  Even in situations where we want to mimic realism as much as possible, death is usually the least interesting outcome.  Heroic recoveries, “Ha, you thought I was dead but no!” surprises, bargaining with angels and demons over souls – those are the moments we live for!  Pun not intended… ok, maybe a little.

If the player wants their character to die, feel free to let them.  No one should have to play a character that they don’t like any more and if the player is looking for a last hurrah let them have it.  But the majority of the time, we GMs should be looking for opportunities to cheer the characters on and offer them compelling consequences and outcomes.

Rocks Don’t Fall, No One Dies

When it comes to the game, the GM spends most of their time interfacing with the players’ characters.  That might mean playing the monsters that are trying to eat the party, the ‘old man’ quest giver sitting in the stereotypical tavern, or the dubiously helpful ally coming along for a chance at riches.  This only makes sense though.  The game exists for the the purposes of the people playing it.  Case in point: when was the last time you watched a GM have a conversation with themselves as two NPCs?  Even in the best case, it still comes across as extremely awkward.  That’s because the game is meant to be a social interaction.

In my opinion, the best GMs are the ones that do everything in their power to support their players.  ‘Support’, however, comes in a lot of different forms.  Providing interesting and balanced encounters, offering tough decisions with meaningful consequences, and incorporating plot hooks and story lines relevant to the characters are all forms of helping the players play the game.  In a way, the GM is the behind-the-scenes cast – screenwriter, props, makeup/hair, secondary characters – and the players are the lead actors.  It’s not the other way around.

GMs are most definitely not out to kill the players.  Just because they’re running ‘the bad guys’ doesn’t mean that their goal is to win by defeating the players.  This is a common misunderstanding that many new players make – myself included, long ago.  Maybe the one exception to this rule is when everyone has agreed to play in a suicidally difficult game (Something like *ahem* Tomb of Horrors comes to mind…) with the express purpose of trying to survive despite the overwhelming odds.  But, in general, there are fewer events in a session that bum me out more than killing a player character.

Say Goodbye to Little Sister!

When it comes to death and non-player characters, things are a little different.  The GM usually handles the interactions between NPCs, and in most cases it is reasonable to assume they get to call the shots on what happens with them, outside of direct player intervention.  If the villain grabs a nearby peasant and makes an example of them, oh well.  If the entire city gets sick because the players release a contagious disease, too bad.  That’s a lot of power.  In some cases, a little ‘tactical offing’ is just the thing to set the stakes and establish the gravity of the situation.

At those times, there’s a tendency to go for the NPCs closest to the main characters.  That is a trap – do not fall for it!  The importance of NPCs core to a character’s concept cannot be understated.  Sometimes they are the entire reason for the character to exist.  The paladin that dotes lovingly on his younger sister?  Killing her off is the same as the GM telling that player, “Ok, move aside, I’m telling your story now.”  That forces the player into a revenge arc at best, or eliminates their desire to play altogether at worst.  The player should always have the ability to react.  Don’t just kill off a character at a capricious whim, just because you can.

Instead, push, poke, and prod there.  Challenge and test their character – find out what the player is willing to risk and sacrifice to protect their important NPCs.  “Oh, little sister is important to you?  More important that ten lives?  A hundred?  More important than your friends?  How about now?”  Here’s a truth: the illusion of the axe blade about to fall is a powerful motivator.  You’ll never see a player as energetic as one put in a tough spot, desperate to avert impending doom at all costs.

So let the player have their choice.  Remember, the best GM asks the paladin if he’ll say goodbye to little sister himself.