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Monday, April 6, 2015

Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom #4 – To be or not to be . . . a Killer GM

Today I am venturing to The Game Masters' Roundtable of Doom.  This is my first foray (though the fourth offering of the Roundtable), so, we shall see how it all goes.  There may be some adjustments made to this post as I get a handle on getting things just right for the Roundtable.


The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you’d like to submit a topic for our future discussions, or if you’re a blogger who’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at gamemastersjourney@gmail.com.

This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker.

There is a wide spectrum of lethality in RPGs, and there are GMs who fall on every possible point within it.  These range from GMs who run campaigns where PCs can never die to the other extreme –GMs who delight in killing PCs.  Where do you fall on this spectrum?  How lethal are your games and why?  How do you handle PC death if and when it happens?


This is a great question, and one that I think has an answer that is not just dependent on the Game Master, but also on the players and the game being played.  Know your audience and know your game.  If you run Call of Cthulhu, Dungeons & Dragons, and Star Wars, Edge of the Empire all exactly the “same,” I think you come out with some anomalies.  Of course, if that meets your players expectations, that might be fine.  There is never just one way to be a GM.  I do believe that the rule of fun should prevail.

Here is how I have done things in my present style of being a GM (because, as the poser of this month’s question, Lex Starwalker knows, being a Game Master is a journey of learning and change).  I think the most important thing is to know your players’ expectations (or if you don’t know them, you need to set them).  Fundamentally, I see role playing games as a way to have fun, and as the GM, you are in a leadership role to help create the fun.  If what you do violates the players’ expectations, or you go against the expectations that you set for the players, that conflict is going to reduce the fun. 

Some of the first GM advice I ever got, was from a few pages towards the back of the 1981 game, Stormbringer (from Chaosium).  In the “Hints for the Game Master” section in the first edition of Stormbringer, Ken St. Andre (with Steve Perrin) wrote a subsection entitled “The Deadly Game Master.”

The literary genre of swords & sorcery fiction is a particularly gory branch of heroic fantasy, and that is what this game simulates.  Inevitably, this means that some players are going to get into situations that they can’t get out of, and their characters will have to die.  It is important that they realize this before the game ever starts, and that they know that you bear them no personal animosity.  Then, when the character’s number comes up, kill him without regret.  As a GM it is poor form to become so fond of some character that you let him cheat death when his luck finally runs out.

Today, I agree, up to a point with Ken’s advice.  As you can see, the advice already assumes that you are in a particular genre of game.  It is not general advice for all RPGs, just ones in the “particularly gory branch of heroic fantasy.”  Also, it advises that you at least admonish the table and set expectations.  I think now, the Game Master and the players, at least in any long term game, need to agree on expectations.  Back in the day, I did kill a fair number of Stormbringer characters.  However, even with an agreeable audience and a lethal game, I do today tend to lean towards mercy at a cost, rather than outright kill a character, if that keeps the story and the fun going.

For the way I run things now, I have internalized the lessons of 13th Age (by Pelgrane Press and Fire Opal Media) and Dungeon World (by Sage Kobold Productions).  In 13th Age Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet suggest that player characters should not just die fighting some nameless monster, and instead offer their own (optional) Meaningful Death Rule.  I think I have generally internalized this approach for many games (with some exceptions, see below).  I think the advice in Dungeon World, that you as GM need to be “fan” of the characters is a complementary one this.  As a GM, on the one hand, you have to put up obstacles and provide threats to the safety and wellbeing of the PCs.  On the other hand, you don’t generally want death to be some random occurrence that does nothing to propel your story or motivate the other characters.  If you are a fan of the characters, such random and meaningless events are discouraging.  If a character that you like dies, you want it to be a great and glorious death, within the meaning of the game.

Fundamentally, though, my rule is know your audience, know your game (and be a fan of the characters).

So, if I am running Marvel Heroic Role Playing for a bunch of tweens, their expectation is that there is not going to be any player character death, AT ALL.  Sure, Spiderman or Black Widow might get knocked around, there certainly are going to be some narrow escapes and heroic rescues, but none of the player characters is going to get shot through the heart and die, game over.  This is reinforced not only by the audience, but of course by the game play.

On the other hand, if I am playing Call of Cthulhu with college friends, death and madness are expected.  The players know going in that a Call of Cthulhu investigator likely has a short shelf life, and those that manage not to die, slip increasingly into madness and disability.  Still, I have run some long Call of Cthulhu campaigns, and I have followed the advice from the early editions of the game.  If you have a choice of killing a PC or taking out an NPC to establish the danger and the threat, take the NPC every time.  It helps if you have established ties to the NPC and that the character is not just another faceless “redshirt.”  However, to get things started with something that causes likely instant death, you kill the guy next to the PCs, and not one of them.  Once the threat is established, you follow the play of the PCs.  Are they reckless and foolhardy, then they do deserve death “without regret” should it come to them.  On the other hand, if they play their characters and show smart play, as a fan, I am going to hold back on any instant death options, unless it really builds the story and is part of the fun of the game (because sometimes messy, or pathetic or horrific death is the fun of a horror game).  If danger is enough, then, we work with danger; maiming, near death, madness, that’s all on the table, but I don’t tend to allow random death that would inhibit the story.

So, what about something in the middle of the spectrum of Superheroes where no one ever dies (at least permanently) and horror, where everyone dies or goes crazy eventually?  This is where most adventure based RPGs reside: Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, HeroQuest, 13th Age, Numenera, Dungeon World, Dresden Files, The One Ring, and et al and etc.  I have to admit to mostly not killing characters.

Over time, I have certainly seen many player characters in these games die.  However, for the most part, I prefer to see the PCs flee, or get captured, or suffer some kind of loss other than death.  This is, I think, largely because I like to run campaigns.  Campaigns need continuity, and killing characters, and particularly the dreaded Total Party Kill, tends to disrupt what is happening with the story that I have been enjoying building with the players over time.  Where death does occur, the story of overcoming death becomes the next logical plot point (e.g. becoming indebted to the healing temple to return the dead companion to life, etc.).  So, usually, the holodeck safeties are, broadly speaking, on when you step into my campaign.  The optional Meaningful Death Rule is going to be in effect.  Characters face other losses, but death is reserved.  In part, that meets the expectations of my players.  They put time into crafting characters, their histories and motivations, and they grow them at the table.  If some wandering damage is likely to kill them, for little to no reason, that is neither fun nor motivating for the kind of gamer who usually sits at my table.

On the other hand, there is a completely separate and apart kind of play, and that is the one-shot.  This does not mean that I turn into the lethal “save or die” GM just because I am running a single evening game.  After all, it should be fun, and getting to play is what is fun.  If we have four hours of play set up and you die in the first ten minutes, how much fun was that?  If dying means no longer being involved, that rather cuts down on the fun.  You can set expectations that characters are disposable and can be replaced, much like clones in Paranoia, but then you are playing a genre of game that is not going to necessarily have wide appeal. 

You do, however, play a one shot to have a different experience and tell a different kind of story.  Lethality can be very much part of that story, and can really be part of the fun with the right group.  I do not, in general, go in for Deathtrap Dungeons.  I don’t think I run them particularly well, so why do something that does not serve the players?  Still, if you know you are going into a deathtrap, you know that death is part of the fun of the game.  It is exciting to escape the trap, but you know your number is likely to come up eventually, and spectacular death is one of the possible rewards of play.  I will give it to you without regret. 

I don’t mind playing a high character death game as a change of pace, but for me, RPG play and the stories it generates is really about having a significant chronical of events for the player characters.  That might, at times, be punctuated by a death, but that is going to be rare and meaningful.


Individuals and their Blogs Participating in this Discussion (to be updated as necessary; posts will be made for the Roundtable between April 5 and April 11)