By Jason Campbell
A lot of TTRPG players and GMs prefer games which are more “gritty”, often meaning the chance of PCs dying is high, while others determined to tell their PC’s story are uncomfortable with character death unless it’s acceptable to both GM and player. As a GM I fall somewhere in between but I’d probably be seen as a “soft” GM in that PC death is rare in my games. In recent discussions I’d realized that the level of lethality differs depending on the situation, so I thought I’d outline my thinking. Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Long Term Campaign
This is sort of the default session, with your friends either online or in person. Here my players know that PCs can die, but I’m not an adversarial GM, and in some cases extraordinary healing, such as resurrection,might even be available, albeit at a cost. It’s expected that if a PC dies that player will create a new character but in my games this doesn’t happen so often that the players come with multiple characters prepared. In return when they need to bring in a replacement character I get them back into the game as soon as possible.
One Shot Adventures
This covers a few possibilities so I’ll elaborate. Players know that PC death is a possibility, meaning they shouldn’t make knowingly “dumb” decisions as their PC can die in those situations. I’m still careful about PC death in these sessions because usually the players will not have the opportunity to bring in another PC when one dies. If possible they may be able to take over a NPC.
I’ve lately run a lot of sessions introducing players to new TTRPG sessions. In this case I try not to have PCs die, unless the system is particularly deadly and that is a concept that needs to be taught. When teaching a game system the goal is to learn the rules and the longer the players are involved in the session the more they’ll learn.
I also run one shot adventures at my friendly local game store where players may come for a single session, be new to the game, or be experienced players, and usually a mix of all of those. In this case the focus has to be on the players having fun. As I mentioned above the players know death is a possibility if they make poor choices. If the players have paid for 3 hours of gaming and their character dies in a half hour, that can be a problem. In these cases I need to “read the room” and determine if the player will take PC death in the spirit of the game or be overly upset. This is a serious consideration in all ages games, where you should gage the potential reaction of the younger players and their parents.
Convention One Shots
Some of the points I’ve already made are relevant here but the situation bears a few considerations of its own. On some conventions your players will be experienced gamers, but I’ve run for new gamers as well so you shouldn’t have any expectations for your table. Depending on the game your players might expect lethality, so if that’s the case you shouldn’t make concessions. In other situations you should keep in mind that your players have paid for a four hour session. It’s your responsibility to make sure they have fun for that time period. In this case you should consider what will happen if a PC dies early in the session. You might want to have a couple of backup characters ready which could be introduced easily so that a player could use them as a replacement PC. Alternately you might make sure there are NPCs which could be taken over by players whose PCs die. If you’re feeling particularly creative you could flex the game system, maybe that player is now in charge of weather effects or chaotic magic if the PCs cast spells. The important thing is that you support the players having fun.
What are some ways you handle PC death and lethal games? Please leave your ideas in the comments below!