The Game Master's Roundtable of Doom is back!
Hats off to the awesome +Marc Plourde for this month’s question:
There are many different skills that come together to make up a GM. The ability to think on the fly, knowledge of the rules, plotting, etc. What skill do you think is your weakest? What have you done to try and improve that skill? What advice do you have to offer others trying to improve that skill set?
Unlocking the Campaign Crematorium
I realize that character death was covered in last month’s GM Roundtable, and while I missed that discussion, I assure you that I’m not trying to play catchup with this post. The ability to properly dispatch a character from a serious campaign can be a true and tangible skill. Sure there are those lighter, deadlier games like Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, where character death is often fast and fun. But in the two systems that I have played the most over the last four years, (Cypher System and Savage Worlds), I cannot recall one significant character death. In the Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition campaign I ran for the three years prior I didn’t have a character death either. Perhaps I could’ve slain one or two if I really wanted to, but in all honesty I can no longer stand putting players through the trouble for fear of breaking a campaign.
Unfortunately I’ve developed a bit of an anxiety over inflicting character death within an established group. I’ve lost my ability to judge whether I should pull a punch or let the dice fall where they may, and therefore have almost removed the concept of character death from my regular campaigns completely. Now that I’m in the confessional, I might as well admit that I can point to the very moment and campaign when I started to lose my touch as a slayer of characters…
… you see I wasn’t always a happy-go-lucky, kid-friendly game master running light hearted, low-risk, heroic mash-ups…
… there was a dark time.
When I was in college I used to pride myself for being a brutal game master. I enjoyed being called “Character Killer”, and my players knew to steer clear of my wrath whenever that look of bloodlust filled my eyes. When I finally got around to reading Knights of the Dinner Table I laughed about the similarities between those GM caricatures and my own style as judge and referee. I gloated over the character deaths “inflicted” on my players, through a “Campaign Crematorium” that I shared on my old Geocities website.
Here are a few of my favorite entries from my glory days, written between 1999 and 2002:
- Kumani Sandpipe (AD&D 2nd Ed. DARK SUN): Halfling Illusionist (Preserver), Level 3, from the villiage of Ogo in the Forest Ridge perished during the early months of the Year of Priest's Defiance. In casting a color spray to distract a barkeep from a conflict between Dei'hok and a waitress, the guard of Ianto was alerted. Kumani fought valiantly, charging into conflict with his psionic boar tusks (animal affinity wild talent), but alas, missed in hitting the half-giant and was instead beaten to death. Kumani will be remembered for trying to taste Dei'hok's flesh whilst riding on a kank together, and he will be missed sorely.
- Aechylus (AD&D 2nd Ed. RAVENLOFT): Elven Fighter, Level 3. The great Undead Slayer, sent out with Pick and Trident to vanquish all undead from the face of Gelvony. Aechylus was a great warrior, whose fearsome attacks caused chaos in battle. Sadly, his ego caused him a gruesome and expedient demise. Injured from arrows, Aechylus fled a small village battle into the surrounding woods, which just happend to be haunted. Tired and worn, Aechylus came across the ghost of the forest, who asked for the intruder's name and profession. Aechylus answered truthfully. "I am Aechylus, I am an Undead Slayer." The rest of the party found his remains torn apart in the shape of a pentagram. (I didn’t even let the player make any rolls on this kill!)
- Lord Nalik (AD&D 2nd Ed. DARK SUN): Aarakocra Preserver/Psionicist, Level 5/5. What can I say... HA HA HA HA HA HA HA. Sorry. After two years finally one of Joe's characters is pushing up daisies... or should I say silt. Anyway. Lord Nalik was a brave creature that held a special love for all of those "Groundpounders" whom he watched over so carefully. Braving the Vertical Forest and the Rhul-Thuan, Nalik took to the east and was helping a party of Slave Tribesmen find a lost member. Being the devoted Earth Defender, an evil Silt Priest proved too much to pass up, and mortal combat began. He struck out to do heavy damage, but unfortunately was attacked with the deadly Silt Strike spell. With the Caller in the Darkness inhibiting his psionic abilities, his time travel attempt failed. Ten tons of sand poured down at over a hundred miles an hour and scoured his feathers, skin, and bone to dust. (Notice the gloating. I think I rolled 20d6 on this attack).
To this day I don’t know why I had such an infatuation with ending the lives of adventurers. It wasn’t that I was going for a TPK, or “total party kill,” rather I would ratchet up the difficulty and press for a character death whenever I though the story was getting dull or boring. It was an easy and perhaps lazy way to introduce drama and emotion into the storyline. But later on in my career I came to the realization that the emotion was anger, not sadness. The players who had to go back to the drawing board and draft another character from scratch were sometimes furious with my rule callings and I frankly, as a more mature GM looking back, I agree with those players.
It took a character’s death bringing down an entire campaign for me to start changing my views.
Back in 2002 I was running an Alternity campaign called “Ether Moon”. It was a home-brewed cyberpunk setting that included some magic and fantasy races. Take Shadowrun, but put it in a Final Fantasy VIII inspired universe and you’d have Ether Moon. We had a pretty good campaign going, with three regular players, and we were close to introducing a few more. My friend Jamie was playing a very eccentric spy named “Tavi”, who was the heart and soul of the group. Jamie’s humor kept the game light and jovial, and his character was the same in the setting. My initial goal for Ether Moon was to have more of “Blade Runner” tone. Dark and foreboding, I wanted the characters to live on the edge of danger at all times. But Tavi’s character reminded me of a “Jack Burton” from “Big Trouble in Little China” – always the center of attention, but maybe not for the right reasons. He wasn’t the strongest or the toughest, but he sure could talk!
Imagine watching “Big Trouble in Little China” without Jack Burton. That’s what it was like after I let Tavi die.
It didn’t have to happen, and it wasn’t even a pivotal scene. The party was engaged with a bunch of ruffians in a parking lot just outside of a hotel when a stray shot took Tavi down. I could’ve flubbed the die-roll, especially since I had the GM’s screen up. But I didn’t. Jamie didn’t get upset, in fact he came up with another character quickly, but this one was much more effective at combat at the expense of fun and entertaining social skills.
The Ether Moon campaign only lasted another couple of sessions before I put it to rest.
Rest in peace, Tavi.
- Tavi (ALTERNITY: ETHER MOON): A mutant human Free Agent Spy who played hard, worked hard, and ended up in a hard way. An adventurer and a friend to both Charlie Hunter and Ms. Parker, Tavi was discovered at a small tavern in Volz Township near Chilakhar by the dynamic duo. A master of charm and seductive arts, Tavi could talk a woodchuck out of his log... and maybe a bit more. A good friend of Coracara the Crystal Dragon, Tavi was deeply saddened by the loss of the dear drake. During the investigation of T.B.I. in New Cylon at the end of February, 2041, Tavi and the rest of the party were discussing their options to infiltrate the biotechnical corporation outside of their hotel in the Far Wall district. A strange archer appeared and attempted to murder the sprite superstar, Tawana. During the skirmish, Tavi used his psionic abilities to levitate the archer off of his elevated position, and over the parking lot to the hotel. Instead of resisting, the archer allowed himself to be dragged through the air, and used the opportunity to slay Tavi with a pair of poison tipped arrors. Tavi was a friend to all.
The Road to Zero Kills
Tavi’s death wasn’t my last kill, but he was the first to get me thinking about the effect a character’s death can have on a campaign. Our group experienced its fair share of character deaths between 2004 and 2007 when I ran a pretty bloody Dark Sun campaign. But when I killed my cousin-in-law Sean’s favorite gnome bard, I realized my days as a “character killer” were over.
After wrapping up Dark Sun in 2007, I kicked off a very successful D&D 3.5 Eberron campaign that featured everyone’s favorite sidekick, Rhoody. Much like Tavi, he was the life of the party, and provided most of the comic relief for a party of min-maxed monster slayers. That was the other side-effect of running incredibly brutal campaigns: I taught some of my players the worst possible lessons. After experiencing an… above average… level of character death in Dark Sun, our opening party for Eberron resembled a team of elite, overpowered Navy SEALS.
All except for Rhoondar Blaine, of course!
- Rhoondar Blaine (D&D 3.5, EBERRON): Gnome Bard, Level 14. Sometimes heroes are taken from Eberron not by sword or spell, but by greed, as it was with little Rhoondar Blaine. Rhoody was a very popular figure in the party, the group's Gnome Bard who was also a secret agent working for "The Trust", the closest thing that gnomes have to a "mafia". Rhoody and the rest of the group had just finished off killing all of the sailors on board three Riedran vessels. Single handedly, and using his newest necklace of fireballs, Rhoondar blew a hole in one ship alone. After the fighting was over, the group found a deck of many things. Rhoondar decided it best to simply draw a pair of cards, figuring that any more could potentially render him a useless adventurer. The first card drawn was the Sun, which gave him a Mattock of the Titans and brought him from 10th to 14th level immediately. Now the most powerful character in the party, Rhoondar excitedly drew another card. Unfortunately this card was the Skull. Immediately Rhoody was warped to a strange realm, where he had one round to prepare for a fight with a Dread Wraith, or forever be destroyed. Rhoody did have about a 50/50 chance to win the encounter, but he was not able to strike the incoporeal creature enough to counter the continued constitution damage he was taking. Eventually, Rhoody was reduced to a 0 in Con, and that would be the end. Rhoondar was a trickster and a lover, and his passing came only a few months after the death of his dearest love, Felicity the Gnome Scholar of Morgrave University.
I know I’m not the first GM to ruin a campaign with the Deck of Many Things, but that event was the tipping point.
When Rhoody died, so did our Eberron campaign and my time with Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. Sean’s character was so integral to the party makeup that adventuring without him just didn’t feel right, and I scrapped the game in favor of something new and shiny… 4th Edition.
Goodbye to the Grim Reaper
I didn’t kill any characters in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. Yeah, yeah, I know what some of you 4E haters are going to say, and I’ll even agree… to a point. In D&D 4th Edition it was really hard for a player character to die…
.. but believe me, if anyone could’ve pulled it off it would’ve been me.
This same tendency to shy away from character death carried with me through Savage Worlds and into the Cypher System. When I would see a character getting close to death’s door I would think about the following following:
- If this character dies, how will that affect the adventure?
- If this character dies, how will that affect the campaign?
- If this character dies, how will that affect the player?
- If this character dies, how will that affect the group?
Not knowing the answer to these questions, and being the insecure GM that I am, when faced with this challenge (when not running Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG), I typically pull a punch or create some kind of deus ex machina to save the day. This is not a good habit, and I probably need to start introducing more risk into my regular campaigns of Numenera and The Strange.
Returning to the Crematorium
If I do reopen the Character Crematorium for business I plan on following these rules:
- Communication: Give your players a reasonable expectation for how often they may have to roll up a new player character. In an old-school, D&D retro-clone this could be every eight to ten sessions or so, whereas in a Cypher System game it could be much more rare.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Pull Punches: There are going to be times when, a character should perish due to a poor sequence of dice-rolling. But if it is going to damage the story or campaign, don’t be afraid to throw some other kind of risk into the mix. Maybe the character does get reduced to 0’s in all three pools (Might, Speed, Intellect), but instead of dying the party has to perform some deed to bring that character back to life. Better writers and GM’s have made this point before.
- Offer Death: If a character is on the brink of death, and there is time, take the player aside and ask them their opinion on the situation. Let them make an appeal if they have become attached to the character, or have future plans. Don’t let a character death sour player’s attitude. This is more suited for campaigns where the expectation of character death is low. Obviously if I did this in an AD&D 2nd Edition Dark Sun campaign this conversation would be coming up all the time!
I may actually get a chance to try out a higher-lethality campaign in Numenera, giving me the opportunity to test my methods of dealing out character death in the Cypher System. Earlier this week I decided to hack my classic’ish Ravenloft module into the Ninth World of Numenera. I use “ish” because it’s not the original, rather the 2nd Ed. Reprint, but still pretty awesome. The players in my weekly Numenera group have just reached 4th Tier, and I’ve been pretty easy going so far when it comes to risk, for all of the reasons mentioned earlier. But now that we’re nearing the end of the campaign, I feel comfortable embracing some of my old tendencies. Stay tuned!
Maybe my old dice have a few more kills left…
Andy, Jeremy, Andreas, Frank, Craig, and Marc, you’ve all been warned!
Mwa, ha ha ha ha!
What is the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom?
- Marc Plourde - Crossing the Divide
- Scott Robinson - Encoding Improvisation
- Peter Smits - Adventures, Planar in Nature
- Lex Starwalker - The Weakest Link in My GM Toolbox
- John Marvin - Wait! Something Important!