Thursday, September 26, 2013

Player Character Death: Who Is To Blame?

Interesting thing happened on twitter the other day. The Angry DM - who is worth reading and following even if you disagree with what he is saying as it is wonderful food for thought - got into one of his daily tirades about player death. His argument was that the amountof HP that a pc has is not his responsibility as the GM, but rather the player's responsibility. Also, extending from that, that it isn't his fault that player's die when they go into situations with low HP. This prompted a debate of GM vs. Players and what was actually going on. Ultimately, I figured I'd air my thoughts out here and ask you guys who is really to blame when a PC dies and what constitutes GM vs PC behavior in these situations.

Totally Situational
I'm not even going to waste time before getting to dodge the question. I think death can happen in a myriad of ways and that depending on those circumstances depends on who is to blame. Examples and break down follow:

Situation 1: As Angry Described
Honestly, the way Angry described his situation I put the blame on the Player. As the Player you have full view of your HP. You know exactly how far you are from death. You know how much healing is available too. If you are low on healing and health and choose to engage in a fight than you have to be willingto accept the consequences as well. It is not, regardless of whether it is GM vs PC or not, the GM's job to pull a punch so your character can live. Sometimes you have to realize you are over matched and not engage or find other ways out.

Situation 2: Low HP, Fight Forced On You
This is a twist on the above situation. In this situation the GM has forced a fight on you despite being low. This is more the GM's fault, especially if there is no way out. Even then though there can be a lot of determining factors that make it not an intentional gank but just something that happens.

Situation 3: Lucky Critical Kills PC
This really isn't anyone's fault. Criticals happen and sometimes people get unlucky. These are the kind of deaths that a lot of GMs who run stories tend to fudge into something else happening, while gamist GMs (and players) just kind of laugh and revel in the randomness of the dice because that is what happens.

Situation 4: Overpowered NPC The PCs Chose To Fight
Your level 3 party just pissed off and attacked an Adult Dragon. That isn't the GMs fault now is it? She likely had other plans for that Dragon. The Dragon likely didn't even care about the adventurers and could have been there for other reasons. But a fight started and now someone is dead. Not really the GMs fault.

Situation 5: Overpowered NPC Attacks the PCs
Barring being provoked (you can only insult the samurai's sensei so many times before he'll draw his sword on you) may be a mistake on the GM's part. Maybe it wasn't meant to go this way. Maybe it was meant to be scarybut the PCs should flee. This is the most convoluted one because there are plenty of reasons why a NPC more powerful than the PCs could attack - you can't expect the whole world to be at the level of the PCs after all - and there are lots of ways this could be Player fault or GM fault. Still, it is good to be cautious as a GM whenever you are dealing with NPCs like this.

Where The Key Decision Lies
The fact of the matter is that a Game is a series of choices and that is what makes up a story as well. As the Player you can choose to not engage in many fights. You can surrender. You can run. You can plead for your life. All of those things that creatures sometimes do are also available to you. Many people fight to the death because they don't know what else can be done. Many GMs have monsters fight to the death because they think that is what is supposed to happen. Some games make running harder than others. Some characters have a harder time than others. Samurai in L5R are less likely to withdraw then a rogue in D&D. At the same time, in that D&D game a Paladin is also probably not going to withdraw at any time soon.

That isn't to say you can't do those things though. There may be consequences. But that is also where the story can be fun. When it comes down to it, when you're in a fight and your HP are dwindling down is your character the kind to risk his life for victory or give up on victory for life?

Another Way Of Looking At It
The other way of looking at it, as a player and a GM, is to treat combat like you treat a gun. Don't put anything in a combat that you aren't willing to see get destroyed. Sometimes, no matter what precautions are taken, things go wrong. The dice come up bad. More damage than is expected is taken. Characters die. The only way to avoid having your character die in combat is to never have your character in combat.

What are your thoughts on the subject?


  1. I think a good way to calibrate expectations is to look at character death over a long campaign. For a long campaign, I expect 0-2 deaths for a six character party. Most of my groups have fit with this.

    As a GM and a player I expect that after going through a good adventure we emerge beaten and bloody, but victorious. Pulling this off means that errors or bad luck can kill characters. It happens, it sucks, but that's part of the risk.

    I expect that anything that's way overpowered will be telegraphed as such and the players have to deliberately poke it with a stick to start a combat.

    I don't have monsters always fight to the death, and many monsters wouldn't kill a surrendering player automatically.

  2. the last part is one that I am trying to work on - it is L5R so a bit harder than in D&D - and have as a definite factor in my Shadowrun game. Both sides CAN surrender if the fight is going bad. The fight doesn't have to be to the death.

  3. I'm a fan of systems with "Fate Points" that facilitate a significant danger level, since death doesn't always mean rolling up a new character. Helps reduce questions of "fault".

    For that matter, I think using a system known for deadliness helps properly set expectations. A PC dying shouldn't be a complete shock.

    Generally, I'm more concerned about TPKs than individual PC deaths. Having said that, however, when big killer damage on a single attack happens to a PC I find it hard to remain objective. It's one of the reasons I tend to roll damage in the open, to eliminate any temptation to fudge anything.