Monday and Tuesday this week we talked about death in games, and stories, and why it can matter. We talked about how the reaction to death - on an audience level at least - is impacted by how often death is present and how commonly it is overcome as an obstacle. Today, I want to talk about how to handle death as a GM. This is going to be more basic advice, but hopefully it will give people something to think on or new GMs a good idea of the different approaches out there. Shall we?
Death In Your Game
Death in table top games seems to come in three varieties: by the dice, special moments only, never. Now, these three ways are kind of extremes and most games fall somewhere in between (think of it as a triangle) but they're still there.
Most game systems are designed t go by the dice. You have an encounter, you roll damage, and if it kills the PC it kills them. This is prevalent enough in some systems (The Warhammer 40k systems for example, Shadowrun 4th ed for another) that a mechanic may be in place for the PC to essentially burn a rank of some stat to stay alive. Even still, the death is determined by the dice.
The second kind is what most GMs who like telling stories with their games will default to. Death can happen, but it is only there some of the time. Random fight with goblins? No death. Fighting the man who killed your father and set you off on a life of adventure? Oh, you better believe death can happen. This approach is kind of a balance between never and by the dice. It lets the GM control when death is an aspect of their game, and thus control the tension of the game better. Players don't have to worry during a random mook encounter, but the tension of a fated encounter is still there.
The final method is never. I've honestly never played in a game where this happens, but I've heard about them. Essentially the GM treats his PCs like the main characters of a serial TV show. Fights can be lost (in some of the games anyhow) but the consequences for losing are things like being knocked out, taken captive, or something like that.
Now, each of these approaches has their strengths and weaknesses. By the dice, for example, is the closest to a game and can present some of the most awesome moments naturally because they have to come around that way. At the same time though, don't bank on that level 6 fighter lasting to level 10 when you're "secret heir" story arc for them begins because there is a solid chance they could die in the next fight and ruin all of those plans. The opposite is true for a never die type game. Those long term story plans and the social drama and tension involved can be planned out so far in advance that you can really bring the plot together. However, you lose some of the impact of that "fight saving" critical success because winning or losing the fight doesn't mean the story ends for the character, just that maybe it takes a different turn.
Choose Your System
Whatever of the three methods above you prefer, or want for a particular game, it is important for you to choose your system to match it. Deathwatch, for example, is going to feel very different with a "never die" type of GM because the game wants death to be a common thing - it's part of the universe. FATE on the other hand puts the decision solely on the player's side of things. At any point in a fight in the FATE system the player can take their character out of the fight. At this point they no longer take damage, no longer accrue consequences and can't be killed. However, if the player stays in the fight they can end up dead. The choice is theirs though. Do they stay in the fight to try to control the outcome, or let the story take a potentially darker turn?
Player Chosen Deaths
Regardless of your feelings of it, sometimes a player is simply going to choose to die. It could be as natural, and heroic, as staying back to fight the good fight against impossible odds while her friends escape, or as simple as putting a gun to his temples and choosing to blow his own brains out. When it comes to your part as the GM there is very little difference between the two (obviously, the story cares, but the pure mechanical game part doesn't really.) In both cases the player has chosen a path that leads to their character dying. The best you can do is make it clear that the consequences of their action will be death and make sure they're sure. If they are then give them what they want.
That doesn't mean you have to kill them by the way. That girl who stayed back to guard the rear could be simply taken captive. Not sure about the suicide, but in some games it is possible as well. If the story could be more interesting, more engaging, or more awesome with the person somehow surviving, then don't be afraid to go with that. However, be aware that if you are doing a game where death can happen and you don't kill a player who does this it may come to be expected. That may be a good thing, but it can also be bad to have player's justifying everything with "it's worth my life to do this" but expect to be able to live through the action at the same time. Some games it works (I'll point out that Batman in the various animated shows and movies he's been in totally does this all the time.) Sometimes, at some point, you may have to collect the life the PC is giving up in the action. If only to keep folks honest.
After Someone Dies
Death should never be solely about loss, not for the player and not for the story. While it is true a death in a random encounter can suck, it should also be an opportunity to breathe new life into a game (even if it is going strong) and to see characters from new angles. Mostly this happens with the introduction of the new Player Character. They will interact with the group differently - hopefully - than the previous character did. Sometimes this will be in good ways. Sometimes it will be in bad ways. Either way though, we get a different angle to see.
I recommend letting a character who died a good death start with some of their accrued XP. L5R calls this the "karma" system where you can reap the rewards of a particular honorable death, or the loss of a particularly good character. Other groups have their own rules. A common practice in my D&D group when we played was that you came in equal in level to the lowest level party member.
This focus, and the rules for things like karma serve two purposes. One, they are blatantly designed to assuage the fear (and other emotions) that can come with losing a character. They do this by showing that you don't have to start from scratch, and in fact - in many cases - you can build the new character more efficiently because you have a lump sum of points on you already. The second thing they do is get everyone focused on the "what comes next." This is especially important in strong story games because the game has to adapt to the loss of a character and shift. This can mean sadness in game, but it can also lead to positive things. Try to bring that up as well.
As a semi-final note for this, regardless of what kind of game you are running, I would be remiss to not point out that as the GM all the rules of the game - including how much damage something just did - is completely up to you. This puts you in the position where, at times, you have to decide if you will spare a character or not. You have limitless tools to do this. You can have an NPC save the day. You can fudge or lower dice rolls. You can have enemies disengage. You can have an enemy die to an attack that wouldn't have killed them. All these tools and more are at your disposal.
Becareful when doing this however. For one thing, it can be a dangerous road to start down as soon you may feel compelled to save every character and before you know it your "by the dice" game has become a "never die" game. Not the end of the world, but your players may react poorly to it (poorly not necessarily meaning mad at you for not killing them, btw.) Still, if the situation seems wrong to you, or it doesn't seem like a good time to kill a character, don't be afraid to step in and stop the death from happening.
Just remember, sometimes, at some points, the players will force your hand one way or another. It sucks, but sometimes you have to let a PC die.
I've decided to talk a bit about this to end this post. GM Guilt is a real thing, and it can come up a lot. Personally, I feel it whenever I kill - accidentally or otherwise - a particularly awesome PC or one that the player was really digging. It stems from a few things, most notably the fact that you could have spared the character but didn't. It can make you doubt your challenge rating for a fight or scenario. It can make you doubt your story and how much you are forcing things. It can make you doubt a lot of things, and when the player is also upset, it can be a lot worse.
My recommendation for handling it is to take a break. If you're mid session try to wrap up the fight and then take a breather for a few minutes. Distance yourself from the table if you need to. Try to objectively go over the situation. Did you actually force the fight? Was there IC reason for the thing that attacked the player to attack? If you follow the thread back far enough, who actually started the encounter? There are other questions you might want to answer, but the key thing is to look at the situation honestly. You'll know if you ganked a PC (odds are you've thought about it before, among other things.) But accidents can happen. If need be, ask someone in the game (not the player of the now dead PC) about it and if they thought it was legit.
Whatever you decide though, don't be afraid to stick to your guns. Ultimately, your players have put their trust in you to run the game. They trust you to be fair. They trust you to challenge them. Believe in that and push forward. If need be, talk tot he player after game and see if you can help them with coming up with a new character. In fact, do that anyhow as it can be a big help. If they have questions then answer them as you can. Beyond that, no one but you can know exactly what happened and why. The important thing is to not beat yourself up over it and to keep going on with the game. If it turns out you made a mistake you can either bring the character back to life, or give the player more XP to start off their new character with depending on what is needed and how much would need to be redone. Regardless, don't take a mistake as a sign that you did something horrendous. Mistakes happen. Learn from it. Move on. Find the new beginning and let it hit the game with the energy that it should bring.