This article was first broadcast in Episode Three on 15th December, 2017.
Lennon: Just to check, Ostron, you mean “Dying Characters”, right?
Ostron: … suuuuuuuuuure.
Most DMs know that only 10% of the reason you have a screen is to hide the notes of your nefarious plans from prying eyes of the players. Most of the time the screen allows you to avoid having a roadside bandit that wasn’t even supposed to make it to melee completely mutilate the level 1 bard because you rolled a critical hit followed by maximum damage.
There are very different attitudes among groups and individual players about dying. There are also differences in opinion among Dungeon Master’s in how to respond. We’re going to quickly cover three general player attitudes toward character death, and three Dungeon Master approaches to killing playe–er, characters.
Knights, Big Damn Heroes, and Roguelikes
We’re going to group player’s attitudes into three categories: Knights, Big Damn Heroes, and Roguelikes.
Knights tend to believe strongly in so-called “Plot armor,” or that protagonists will never really die unless it’s been obviously pre-arranged or is the climax of the story. They will tend to invest a lot of emotional and creative effort in a single character and go into the game with the expectation their character will be with them to the end. If that character dies, the Knight will assume some method of resurrection is forthcoming without great effort. Permanently killing one of this player’s characters will be a BIG DEAL and, in some cases, can cause them to depart from the campaign.
Big Damn Heroes have a somewhat more balanced approach. They acknowledge that death is a constant possibility and will play with that in mind. However, they also recognize that dying can serve a purpose for the story and causing a really cool or important thing to happen may be worth getting their character killed. Creating a new character will be more of an annoyance for this player; they’ll put a lot of time and effort into characters’ backstories and development and rolling a new one will be a process for them, but they won’t be devastated.
Roguelike, in this case, has nothing to do with the class. Roguelike players consider their characters to be little more than the sum of the numbers on the character sheets. These players tend to lean more heavily on the “Game” end of the RPG spectrum, and their desire to retain or lose their character will often revolve around how effective that character is at performing tasks like skill checks and combat rolls. Having a character killed for these players is mostly seen as an opportunity for them to try a new idea, and they will even occasionally petition to have their character killed so they can move on to the next thing. Note that in rare cases a Roguelike player can find a “perfect” character, and can turn into an Knight in the blink of an eye.
Salespeople, Joss, and Ramsay
As a DM, your responses to these attitudes can also fall into three broad categories that we’re calling “Salespeople, Joss, and Ramsay Bolton”
The quote “give the people what they want and they’ll always show up” has a few variations and many attributions, but it’s been a tenet of salespeople for years. Being a salesperson DM in this case means you’re going to cater to the whims of the different players. Knight characters are going to make it through to the end, the Big Damn Hero characters, if they die, will do so gloriously, and Roguelike players will show up with a brand new character sheet every other level or so. This approach involves the most work for you as a DM; you’ll have to fudge rolls all over the place and engage in somewhat illogical tactics to keep the Knights alive. Big Damn Hero players will have to be monitored to see whether you killing them is going to jive with their personal sense of drama. In this approach, the Roguelike characters are kind of a breath of fresh air; you’ll be allowed to just let the dice fall where they may.
The popular writer/director Joss Whedon defended several examples where he killed wildly popular characters in his shows and movies by saying “Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need.” Imitating Joss when DMing is more risky because people can and will get upset and you’ll often have to have conversations with the players afterward, mostly with the Knight players. You aren’t killing them just because they didn’t want to die, it was their own fault for charging into the dragon’s lair without checking for traps. This approach is useful with players who are getting more experienced but need to expand their view of what’s possible within the game, good and bad. However, done incorrectly the Joss approach can come off as arrogant and patronizing.
Finally you have the quote from Game of Thrones’ Ramsay Bolton: “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” Cited by many as one of the most “meta” quotes of the show, DMs following this path tend to ignore the desires of the players. Usually this is done for one of two reasons: they either fervently believe that the dice rolls should never be fudged, or they have a very specific idea of how the story should progress. Either approach is somewhat fraught with peril unless there’s a lot of communication with the players, probably before the campaign even starts. While it’s generally understood the DM is god of their particular domain, nobody likes serving under a callous, thoughtless God. The game is supposed to be fun for all concerned. Playing a campaign where characters can be permakilled without warning or build-up is definitely not fun for most Knight and Big Damn Hero players and may even grate on the Roguelike ones. Again, this is presuming you didn’t discuss it beforehand. There is fun that could be had in a campaign where everything is done literally and there’s no roll-fudging, but players will probably want to go into that with eyes wide open. If you want an example of what happens when you don’t warn the players, Google “Red wedding reaction videos”.
Obviously these are generalizations and not every player or DM strategy falls neatly into the categories presented. However, the goal is to help you figure out what kind of players you’re dealing with, and what the likely reactions will be in different scenarios. Good luck and may the dice be ever in your favour!