On Killing A Player Character

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I had to kill a PC last night.  It’s the first time I’ve ever killed a PC.
I’m still a little upset about that.
Now, when I say “I had to kill a PC,” that’s a ludicrous statement: I’m the GM, the guy who runs the game.  I control reality.  I could have turned the villain into a cloud of balloons, or had Superman fly in from above to save them, or given the merciless Borglike creature attacking poor Gigi a change of heart.
Yet all of those alternatives would have radically changed the nature of the world I’d created.  In a game, you try to set up a realistic set of expectations, and ensure that those expectations are met.  In some games, that expectation is, “You will never die, because you are a hero,” and to that end almost any bending of the rules is okay.  In other games, that expectation is “Death comes easily to anyone, often for trivial reasons,” and in games like that you would feel cheated if someone did fudge a die roll to save you.
My game – like most games, I think – has the implicit expectation of “I’ll try not to kill you, since you’re the hero, but if you make a lot of bad tactical moves, then death is an option.”  And a lot of bad tactical moves were made.
Thing is, I tried to stop her.  When poor Gigi abandoned her fellow PCs, hell-bent on tracking down a wussy enemy of hers in a dark warren called The Murder Holes, she snuck off alone without telling anyone.  She encountered a hidden nest of spiders, whose razor-sharp webs did damage to her, which was my attempt to say “Hey, you’re injured, go back to your healer and group up” – the player interpreted that as “These warrens are dangerous with webs and traps, I shouldn’t backtrack.”  I used an echo to show that her enemy was mutating into a monster that shot energy bolts from his fingers, energy bolts that incinerated a whole nest of spiders – but the information that Joe McWuss here may be transforming into an actual threat was dismissed.  I made it clear by cutting to a scene with the other PCs that they were at least fifteen to twenty minutes away from helping her, and that got overlooked.
The overwhelming display of power I had the now-mutated boss monster – who had been designed to face down three PCs and their sidekick and fight them to a standstill – merely convinced Gigi’s player that retreat was useless, put her back against the wall.  When I had the boss monster say, “You’re getting tired, I can sense it,” that was me, trying to tell Gigi’s player You are running low on hit points, GTFO – but it was taken as taunting, the kind of thing every paper monster says to make victory all the sweeter.  
When Gigi took the fatal hit, I put the game on hold and walked in the yard for a while.  How could I save Gigi?  I eventually said, “Okay, instead of killing her, the monster will infect her and the other PCs can save her.”  And due to more subtle miscommunications, the players approached this Big Boss as “We can kill this monster!” instead of “We need to rescue Gigi and get out!” and by the time they finally decided it was time to flee, they consciously and purposely left Gigi behind.
Now, I could have reduced the threat of the boss monster (who’s intended to be the main nemesis of much of the campaign), or magically transported the other PCs fifteen minutes ahead in time so they charged into battle just as Gigi was about to fall, or any number of other subtle changes.  I didn’t.  And when the players left her for dead, I couldn’t think of a way to save her that didn’t involve things I found to be unbelievable stretches of the imagination.
So I looked Gigi’s player dead in the face and said what all GMs essentially say whenever they kill a PC:
“Your character’s life is not as important as my game’s reality.” 
That’s a tough goddamned call.
And yet, for me, that kind of call is necessary.  I don’t want to play in a game where my success is a given – hell, isn’t that obvious from my love of Magic, programming, and writing, three skills where you learn by slamming your face into failure?  I want a game where if I screw up, significant losses can accrue, where every battle has a chance of going really badly if you don’t plan carefully. Where death is not a given, but always a potential concern.
If I had chosen to save Gigi, I feel – and every GM has to make their own call on this – that I would have irreparably damaged the contract I quietly hold with the players: namely, that actions have consequences, and when actions are not wise, not all of those consequences will be pleasant ones.  I would have saved one game session at the cost of future ones, bending the game towards a style of play I dislike.  (And though I am in charge of trying to provide a fun adventure for my players, as the GM, I am not their bitch.  My enjoyment has to count for something, too.)
Gigi’s player was irritated, which is understandable.  Nobody wants to lose someone they’re attached to.  Yet I remember when we were playing Delta Green a few weeks ago, when Gigi’s player, frustrated by me constantly asking, “Uh, are you sure that’s a good idea?” finally exploded and told me, “Look, just let us make the stupid moves and let us deal with the consequences!”
Well, this time, I let them make the stupid moves and doled out consequences.  Yet that didn’t go over well, either.
That’s not necessarily hypocritical.  People go to games for escapism.  Being in a game that’s frustrating or involves losing is not fun.  Discovering that the GM does not share your opinion on the effectiveness of your tactics is not fun.  Spending your entire game getting killed is not fun.
And tonight, I ran a very not fun game, and as I said, I’m still a little upset about that.
Yet those not fun nights will happen occasionally as a GM.  To Gigi’s player, Gigi was making a solid call.  She had an enemy who she’d wanted to kill since the first game, one who she had a firm shot at, who she could finally track down in isolation.  To Gigi’s player, I have no doubt that this seemed like an awesome idea – and in many games, it probably would have been.  If I’d been running a game where the PCs triumph no matter what, I would have twisted things so Gigi would have been rewarded for her bold initiative and taken out her enemy in style.
But it wasn’t.  I was running the kind of game where running off alone into a dark maze of tunnels to kill a mutating opponent wasn’t a very good idea.  And I was running the kind of game where the philosophy is, “Some nights suck when you lose, but the victories are so much sweeter when you finally figure out the right tactics.”
Nobody wants to be told that their tactics aren’t the right ones. As a GM, it’s my job to say “yes!” as often as possible when players devise weird new approaches.  Yet it’s also my job to judge when a plan simply wouldn’t work, and that causes friction when the player thinks this is a good idea and you do not.
As a GM, it’s also my job to tell the players what kind of world they live in, and to enforce those boundaries – and if my world is the one where all roads don’t lead inevitably to triumph, then that means some nights they’re gonna have the Empire Strikes Back of the soul.
Maybe they like that style of game, in which case they stay.  Or they don’t, in which case I hope the thrills they get when they win offset the occasional nights of suck, and that they learn to pick up when I’m flailing my GMly arms to send signals that whoah, pull back, retreat, this is not working!  Because I suspect a lot of tonight’s death came from a quiet misalignment of gaming philosophies – acting like the hero of Die Hard works if you’re in Die Hard, but what happens if this is Game of Thrones?
I’m a little upset because I don’t like upsetting my players.  But I’m also a little upset because I don’t really see what else I could have done and kept playing the sort of game I want to run, and that’s a rough beat.  A very rough beat.

4 Comments

  1. Dan Christiansen
    Mar 19, 2014

    Chilling. Few truly appreciate a GM so fully invested and dedicated to the experience. It’s with a heavy heart that I have to agree with how things unfolded.

  2. Olivia
    Mar 19, 2014

    I know this feels.
    I have been GMing or STing since about 2001. I’ve yet to kill a PC… even in my most recent game where I said “I’m going to kill your PCs so I can get over the fear of it, but only after session 3.” Didn’t happen. Still MIGHT happen, but we’ll see. We’re on something like episode 7 upcoming.
    Something I’ve taken to in the past few months, that all of my tabletop players and LARPers are taking to nicely and have responded to very positively, is a “transparency meeting” before and during the wrap-up at the end.
    I’ve modified the idea from Nordic LARP (here’s their super brief, one-sentence explanation: http://nordiclarp.org/wiki/Transparency). I don’t go so far as to have players reveal their PC’s internal motives, or to give away huge plot mysteries on my end.
    Basically, before each game players answer:
    * If they are new to our game who they are, how they were brought into our game, and one sentence about their gaming history so we know their experience level
    * How they as a person are doing today (“I’m feeling great!” “I’m feeling kinda down and fuzzy-headed.” “I’m going to need to get some water/pain killers/food in [x-amount of time].”)
    * What they want out of the game tonight (“I just want to let Mungo go nuts today and cause a lot of havoc!’ “I want to let Mungo be really vulnerable today, and just huuuurt all over in the brainspaces.” “I want to let Mungo be a real big jerk and make lots of people hate him.”)
    Then, during wrap-up, people talk about how their goals went and something positive they experienced during the game with another player, to help them think about not just themselves but also how other people impacted them or how great someone else’s scene was.
    As the GM or as part of the ST team, I also participate in Transparency. That way I can let my players know how I’m doing, what anxieties I might have, and what I hope to bring to them during the game (“Tonight, I hope to touch on the themes of clarity vs. madness, and community. I don’t think I’ll have a lot of gray morality–any that you see will be Player driven.”)
    And… yeah! I have had even “problem” players (ones who more frequently get into disputes with others) tell me that this sounds like an amazing thing, and that they really hope it continues to work for them.
    Communication is great and awesome and important–but if we do not give some players the specific time set aside for “and now you have a chance to DO that communicating”, they might be shy about their feelings. Or heck, might not have ever considered that they *could* talk about those things. I kinda feel like this is the same for most groups of people, not just role-players. ^_^
    I know this doesn’t help last night’s PC death. But I hope it or an idea like it might be helpful for you–or others–in the future!
    Good luck, Ferrett! (“We’re all counting on you!”)

  3. ccr
    Mar 19, 2014

    We have a saying in our campaigns: “Never split the party.” The GM feels perfectly justified in slaughtering anyone who goes off alone, especially in a place with “murder” in its name. Sheesh.

  4. Alex Brown
    Mar 27, 2014

    I, being a college student, have a large pool of people to play with, which is quite the blessing when it comes to my writing style for campaigns. I like to make a story based around what the players get to feel, and likewise I tell them how likely they are to die beforehand. Players who select my campaigns out of the mix know what they are getting into from the beginning. For example, I ran a campaign based around encroaching darkness at an intense difficulty level. Players knew from the beginning that one wrong move could cost them, so even though the players that died didn’t like dying, (though, who does?) they had to accept that they made a wrong move. One of them even died entirely by chance! It helps if you let them know what kind of behavior you reward and what kind you penalize, and whether or not it is likely that they may die just because you rolled high for that constitution damage. I like short campaigns, though, which may be different for anyone else. The shorter the campaign, the harder you can reasonably make it.

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