Life and Death – How I Threatened Their Lives

Recently Level 30 Yinzer described her attempt at offing a character, and how she found that difficult. This caused some thinking about my own approach to killing off PC’s, and how I go about it or don’t.

Targeting a specific character for death


But I do sometime warn my players, that I have planned something deadly for them for the evening. It builds expectations, which is good.

Problems with Continuity

The main reason why I am not fond of killing off PCs is that it ruins continuity in the events, plots and stories the characters are tied to. I have often experienced that a story arc lost its momentum once a central character died off. Recently in one group three fifths of the characters were eliminated, and shortly after that three fifths were eliminated again. This means that all the dynamics between the characters has to be rebuilt. It is kind of like, when they start a new season of a tv-series with the replacement of almost all the characters. For instance X-Files changed a lot, when Mulder was replaced, and even more when Scully were put on the sideline. So character deaths annoy both me and the players.

Player-Controlled Story Arc

In my Delta Green-campaign we have lost two characters, and that really changed the dynamics of the group. One character was offed by a fellow character, and the other ran out of luck or fate or the equivalent. However, it did fit into the story, and both characters had a chance to end their story before dying off. That made it feel right, when the characters died, even though it did influence the continuity in the group – and this will get a lot worse, when the two remaining veterans bite the dust, and that will happen sooner or later.

The exit of the characters were controlled by the players, but that it occurred were forced by the game. To control the exit the players have Decline Points, which allow them to survive the onslaught of the mythos, but once they run out, the characters will very soon be eliminated by bad luck, random chance or a mythos related incident.

The first character lost happened shortly after he ran out of Decline Points. The player had up to this point (that is before losing the remaining Decline Point) slowly revealed to the other players, that his character had become more and more unhinged and he had foreshadowed the characters attempt to assassinate the loved ones of another character – and when he ran out of Decline Points, he asked if he could set up the end of the character. Of course. So we played out a scene, where he lay hidden with his sniper rifle planning to eliminate the loved one, when his trusted ally (another player character) stepped out and confronted him. As he would not change his ways or his plans being too caught up in his madness, she placed a bullet in his head. That was the end of the character.

The second character was loosing his Decline Points quickly, and in order to gain more he was becoming alienated from his friends and family (to gain more, you must burn a relation), so he began to plan his legacy (a secret storeroom mostly), and on the next mission he lost his remaining Decline Point, and got kidnapped by Mi-go. However, after the traditional placing the brain in a machine, I allowed the character to present a final goodbye to one of the other characters (in part as an homage to Lovecraft’s short story). Afterwards he was lost forever to the Mi-go.

Not always Life At Stake

Tough choices can be as interesting if not more interesting that risking the characters life. After all you have to live with the consequences of your character’s choice, but a dead character is just replaced with a new one.

So sometimes I simply replace combat to the death-situation with something else, a hard choice.  Save villagers or defeat the monster is almost a hard choice, but not really. More oomph should be added, it should be personal. Then it is proper hard choice, for instance promotion or saving your best friend from humiliation? That makes it hard, because you can’t go kill things to avoid the choice.

Things Worse Than Death

Once the characters in my Wizard Campaign were exploring the mansion of the Grand Grandmother of one character. The Great Grandmother was/is a powerful necromancer bend on living her life through her descendents using Magic Jar-spells, and she may actually be a lot older than the Great Grandmother.

Thus the mansion was filled with powerful, magical traps, and in older versions of D&D quite a few would have drained levels or instantly fried unfortunate characters. This mansion however trapped its victims in pocket planes – thus becoming the victim of a trap, meant that the character was lost for the rest of the exploration of the mansion. Instead of rolling up new characters, the trapped characters would each play out a scenario trying to escape their prison. In each scenario the other players would play NPCs (fellow prisoners or guardians), and luckily the three trapped PCs succeeded in escaping, returning to the normal world weeks or months after disappearing.

Safe or Die

Now in the good old D&D Dungeons – such as the ones I am currently playing – there are several monsters, that can kill with their “save or die”-attacks. Since we are playing with the 4th ed.-rules, there are no ‘save or die’-attacks left, but I did keep some peculiarities when playing Rahasia, such as the “Turn to platinum”-trap and the “Possessed by a Witch”-trap. The first one is without a save – as it is an obvious trap, and the players did guess it with no problems (things however went wrong, when they decided, that they wanted to test a potential loophole, and the rogue got turned to a nice platinum statue. This effect is lifted, once the scenario is successfully completed) – and the second was sort of kept as a ‘save or die’, and one character got possessed, but once the great evil was defeated, the character would be safe and sound. unfortunately the players failed, and two characters were therefore lost.

Otherwise I do not really use ‘save or die’-effects, and especially not for random monsters. How this brings me to the following:

The Obvious Death Trap or “If You Fail the Roll, Your Character is Lost”

Not long ago one group had to cross a deep gorge. There was a bridge, but it had long since broken down, and only the pillars supporting the bridge remained. The players planned and prepared, and their characters spent some resources in order to have a rope suspended between the pillars, so they could slowly climb across. Then I told them, that it would require a certain amount of checks to successfully cross for each character, and if once was failed, the character would plunge to his death. The chances of failing were low, but once you have to roll more than once, the risk increases significantly. Every rule and every trick the players could think of were employed, and there was a lot of tension, as they began to roll. Luckily they all succeeded, otherwise characters would have been lost. alternatively the players could have chosen to go back, or to search for some alternate route.

We had an episode in my wizard-campaign of a like nature. One of the wizards was under the influence of an “ethereal leech” sucking her life-energy causing her to fall asleep all the time. The solution was to use an enchanted scalpel to remove the monster, however this would risk opening a gate to the ethereal plane, where the entire leech would be confronted (and what looks as a tiny leech in the material plane is a huge beast in the ethereal plane). A roll is failed and the gate opens, and I warn the players, that the gate will make one attempt to suck each character through stranding them on the ethereal plane. If the save was failed, the character would be lost. As with the other group, the players began prepping and employing all known tricks in order to handle the save, and it gave us a series of rather exciting dice rolls, where they all ended up being succesful.

Note that when the players employ all the rules, it includes rules such as The Art of Doing it Cool, Plot Points, and Background: City/Countryside. The result is, that we actually get to play in-character the prepping and planning in a much more detailed manner than otherwise.

So the threat of death of character can be handled in many ways. It can be a dooming die roll, a fate worse or alternate to death, or it can come about as a result of a count down allowing the player to plan the end of the character.


  1. Some very nice thoughts here. I wrote another post down the line about choices that are worse than death, so I really appreciate the direction you took here with that.

    My only complaint is the pronoun in the first sentence-I am totally a chick gamer 🙂

  2. I am entirely of the notion that a do-or-die situation is completely valid, especially if the characters have an option to take a safer, longer route.

    Good write-up!

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