Roleplayers: Your philosophy on killing PCs?

OK, gamers, I want your opinions: what do you think about killing player characters? I have always played in games where killing a PC was a last resort, and if it did happen, it was either necessary, discussed beforehand, or in a finale. I always felt that, if you expected a player to invest a lot of time and energy in character creation and development, you should honor that investment. Sometimes, you can sit with a player and say, “Your character is going to die. How do you want to go out?” and make it fun and dramatic for all the players, with no hard feelings in the end.

Note that this attitude doesn’t apply to one-shots or games that I’m playing/running for broke, without much investment in developing the character for a long-term game, though I find it’s a PITA to get people to make another character in the middle of a one-shot. It’s safe to say that, in general, when I’m GMing, I do whatever possible to make sure the players have fun and walk away from the table feeling like they were part of a interesting story, and usually this means that their characters have been successful in some way. As a player, if I bust my butt to come up with a great character and put in a lot of effort, I hope he won’t be killed frivolously.

However, I was discussing this with a fellow gamer who felt that he could and would kill PCs whenever it was realistic to do so, without warning. He didn’t go out of his way to make it happen, but if it came to pass, he expected the player to just make another character and move on. What made it harder to take is that he wants his players to come up with extensive background histories, write journals in character after each game, etc., but after a player has done all that work, he’d still cap 'em. We had to agree to disagree, but it led me to wonder what the consensus view was among gamers.

So GMs, what is your philosophy with regard to killing PCs? Players, how do you feel about your characters being killed? Ever lost a character in a way that really ticked you off? Tell me your stories and share your opinions.

I would only kill PCs if it fits the drama of the story, or if they do something utterly stupid. Losing a PC because of a ride-by shootout between rival thieves’ guilds might be realistic, but it sure is a lame way to lose a character. On the other hand, if the PC was actively allied with one of the guilds and died in a skirmish, that would be acceptable.

Come to think of it, I only ever killed one PC in a regular campaign, and that was in the grand finale with the evil wizard he was destined to fight (hey, it was my first game, you’ll have to forgive the cheese). Early on though, the cleric and the wizard almost got everyone else killed. They decided to rob the innkeeper, but they managed to set the place on fire in the process. Then they had to escape the torches and pitchforks of the local militia. If they had gotten killed, well it was their own damn fault.

Hmmmm, I think that this GM wants it both ways…he wants his players to invest a lot of energy into creating characters that he casually kills off. I don’t think that’s fair. I had one DM (and this was D&D we’re talking about, the original booklets) who told his new players ahead of time not to get too attached to their characters until they’d lived to fourth level or so. He was very tough, but fair. If a game master (not just a dungeon master) intends to have a low survival rate among his PCs, it’s only fair to warn them ahead of time.

The DM I referred to didn’t mind people making up backgrounds and stories and such, and in fact encouraged roleplaying and long running campaigns…but it was very hard to get a character past the first few levels. As a general rule, we just rolled up stats, picked a name, equipped the character, and started playing. If the character died at first level, the DM would allow us to reroll hit points and use the same stats, if we wanted, and we also had to option to retain the STARTING equipment of the dead character.

I sure miss that DM.

In general I try to avoid killing PCs unless they do incredibly stupid things or it’s dramatically appropriate. What is stupid or appropriate can vary from game to game.

I agree, it’s part of the unwritten gamers code. Likewise that same respect should be GM and his investment in the campaign. I GM most of the time and I find the attitude of “The GM is GOD” to be incorrect. Instead I like to tell my players “This isn’t MY game it’s OUR game.” So when a PC is lost it means I have to change plans and make room in the campaign for a new PC.

Some games are more forgiving then others. When playing D&D, Spycraft, or Deadlands I am much more forgiving and a little more willing to prevent the PCs from dying. A character might take on 4 orcs or beat the hell out of 8 armed members of H.A.R.M with a reasonable expectation of winning or at least living.
On the other hand games like Blue Planet, Legend of the Five Rings, and Call of Cthulhu take a more gritty approach to combat. Characters in these games need to think twice about getting into a fight because the risk of severe injure or death is great. A character expecting to take on 4 armed men is likely to have his ass handed to him on a silver platter.

The last time I can remember losing a character was in D&D 3.0 in 2000. I was a fighter and my opponent was a young dragon (white I think) who had bested others in our party and was about to take me down so I went ahead and played dead. Unfortunately this dragon was the kind to freeze it’s prey right before eating them. I died. Ah well.


I don’t enjoy killing PCs. But the game loses something if there’s no threat of death.

Generally, I’ll kill them if they do something stupid. Or if they lose a fight and there’s no conceivable justification for the opponent to spare them.

In D&D, killing PC’s is a monetary inconvenience. In Champions, it’s an opening for a plot device.

Those are the two main games I’ve played. In both situations, it’s a part of the game systems, just like riding horses and wearing armor. It happens.

I think it depends a lot on the tone of the game, and the way you want players to roleplay. In high school, my GMs ran games where if you stepped into the wrong trap, or tried to tackle the wrong monster without preparation, you would die, so I learned a very paranoid and cautious (one might even say timid) style of play. This was is the style of play that was rewarded by the GMs, because it made the game very tense and exciting. Yeah, I lost characters. And sometimes that really hurt. But as time went on, I came to feel that a fitting death for a character (a glorious death in battle for a proud warrior, being killed by a stolen artifact for a greedy theif, etc.) was just part of good roleplaying.

In college, I joined games where the style of play was much more cinematic and swashbuckling. It took me a lot time to realize that I could take chances without getting my character killed. Finally I learned that GMs would actually reward me for being dramatic, going out on a limb (sometimes literally), playing David to some intimidating Goliath, etc. because it created the tone they were looking for in their game.

And now I play Amber. My character is the biggest badass in the universe. I ride unflinching into the very maws of death, and come out with barely a hair out of place. My enemies tremble before me, and my friends fear me as much as they respect me.

Or at least I like to think so.

More to the point, my GM’s stated policy is that if I’m going to do something that is going to get my character killed, he will say, “You know, there is a good chance you might die if you try that.” If I go forward, the odds are excellent that I will at the very least be injured severely or imprisoned. (There are things worse than making up a new charcacter . . . like cooling your heels for a couple of gaming sessions in a hospital or an inescapable dungeon while the plot moves on without you.) I’ve never had a character die under this GM, but I have had characters who were willing to die. Knowing that the GM can choose to kill your character in the next five minutes is a very different thing from knowing that you might die if the die rolls go the wrong way.

On the other hand, I know (as a player) that if I don’t get a warning from the GM, I’m not gonna die, which makes my characters pretty cocky. That’s fine; it’s in-genre. There is still a great deal of tension in the game, but it most often doesn’t come from the imminent threat of character death, it comes from politics, losing your soul bit by bit to unknown dark powers, &c. I mean, really, having your character fall over dead is really nothing compared to losing control of your character and having it become an NPC who is an enemy.

Especially considering that your character is the biggest badass in the Universe.

Next to your new character, naturally. :smiley:

When I run a game, it’s very rare for me to kill a PC. In fact, in the last four years, I can only think of one time that I did so: a sorcerer, separated from her friends by a fog cloud and an immense summoned betentacled monstrosity, decided to advance toward the monstrosity to magic missile it instead of running the hell away. Her 5’ step forward enabled the monstrosity to take a full-attack on her. It was ugly.

However, there’s a great tension in the game when you make live-or-die rolls. Two sessions ago, a ghoul managed to paralyze a PC, and I described very clearly the ghoul’s effort to Coup de Grace its victim. Had a nearby PC not taken a lethal Attack of Opportunity, it woulda been all over for the PC. The moment was a lot of fun, and I hope that it impressed on the players the fact that I wasn’t pulling punches, so that they’ll be very afraid of future combats.

This is a huge point of contention amongst D&D fans on other messageboards. In most games, I’d rather have PCs with a lot of background information, and I know that most players aren’t willing to do that work if their PC is likely to kick the bucket at any moment. Sometimes, however, it’s fun to play in games where death is an imminent threat. The latter type of game is more gamelike, whereas the former type lends itself better to telling a cinematic story.


Do it all the time. I’m deadly. I just call the dice like I see them. The exception is that I won’t use critical kills against low level characters, and I’m slightly more inclined to fudge the dice rolls at 1st-2nd level. I’m pretty sure all of the characters in my Friday game have died at least once.

On the other hand, resurrection (in all their incarnations) and reincarnation spells are easy to come by. We prefer players resurrect their characters than create new ones. I hate having to reduce treasure hordes for the next half dozen or so encounters because the PCs cannibalized the dead PC’s horde.

Our DM only kills PCs when someone does something stupid.

For example, once our level 2 party got the bright idea to kill a troll by setting up a trap where we lure the troll under a tree and one of us would push a giant oil-based molotov cocktail from the tree and onto the troll.

The pusher failed his dex roll and followed the flaming barrel of oil down onto the troll, and both of them had to roll 20D6 fire damage. It wasn’t pretty. On the other hand, the survivors got some great XP :smiley:

As a D&D DM - whatever maximizes fun is best, within reason. I have a DM that
“plays the dice as they roll” unless you kiss his ass. I also have players that would cry like babies if their character died, even if you have to have them survive a 3000 foot fall that is their fault - “I attack a cloud!” I would rather have a game master/dungeon master that kills characters than have him spend his time assuaging crybabies.

DM’s should strive for balance though. No one likes dying because their masterfully played character missed one saving throw and it kills the character outright. Although fairness is impossible, it should at least appear that players are given a fair shake to save their skins whenever possible. Nobody likes railroading…

That said, it’s usually one for the record books if I actually manage to knock a character unconscious in a D&D game… on the other hand, one character in a Champions game died three times in one battle…

Most of my GMs don’t kill PCs out of hand. I was in a LARP that had a kill count higher than I would have liked, but there wasn’t much in that LARP I did like. I start GMing in a week, for the first time, and I will only kill players if they do something REALLY dumb and none of the other party members stop them.

I am very much of the “only if they do something stupid” camp. The story moves along better that way with our style of play. However, bad die rolls can end up leaving you with a curse, amnesia, debilitating wound, etc.

I’m a big fan of the “hovering at death’s door” house rule in D&D. At zero hit points, the character is considered to be unconcious and bleeding to death. S/he will then loose one hit point per combat round until, at -10, s/he is dead. If a cleric or someone with some medical skills is able minister to the character for one round without getting hit themselves, the injured character is considered “stable” and will no longer lose hit points. I used to rule that a Cure Light Wounds would return the character to a stable zero hit points–still unconcious, but no longer bleeding. This rule allows for high-stakes combat and character preservation. And, if that doesn’t work, there’s always ressurection!

In 3.0/3.5 a character is disabled at 0 hp. If he doesn’t make any combat or strenuous moves (what qualifies is somewhat up to the DM), he doesn’t go unconscious.

I’ve often operated under ‘The Gods love a good show.’ Step up to the plate and your patron will try to help.

Well, I haven’t played D&D since approximately 1984 when I was a college boy, but I did play fairly frequently then and DM’ed a lot. The people I played with considered PC character a necessary part of game play. No risk = no rush. As a DM, though I didn’t forbid players killing each other’s characters, I did discourage it because of the real-life animosity it could cause.

Some of the stuff you guys are talking about is completely off-putting to me. DM requires players to keep journals?

Some of the descriptions remind me of this one group of players a friend and I played with on a single evening. In the course of 4 hours or so of “play” they accomplished pretty much nothing in terms of the game. They encountered some wolves while approaching the dungeon and then spent about 90 real-time minutes debating what that “meant.” At the 2-hour mark, still not having actually entered the dungeon, I announced that my character had thrown himself on his sword, Roman-style. The DM warned me that, because I pissed him off, there would be no possibility of revival. I allowed that, since I had a different approach to the game than they did, it was okay with me. I then went to a nearby convenience store and played “Wizard of Wor” for a couple hours. My pal eventually caught up with me and told me that in the following two hours, they had actually entered the dungeon but then just stood inside the vestibule debating what to do next.

As a LARPer I found it was so much better when you didn’t have people dying off all the time. Of course it depends on the game too, but we were playing Vampire the Masquerade.

The first game I joined with a friend I had met at school. I didn’t mind it, but I didn’t like it. This group was made up of rules lawyers and fighters. We couldn’t go a single game without someone losing their temper and attempting to kill someone else, or at least having the Storytellers tossing in something violent. The games dragged on forever because most of it was spent in combat with the same few people, and arguing over who did what and how. IMHO it was a badly run game, especially as a newbie since it was real easy to die and just sit around doing nothing all the time.

My first character in this game got killed by a hunter. Somehow this hunter had infiltrated the meetings without anyone noticing (I guess no one used auspex on him or something). Now my character was young, a street kid, new vampire etc. For some reason they had a bachelorette auction (I don’t recall why at all) and all the people who participated got 500 bucks. Now she might not need food, but spending cash for clothes will come in handy so she said sure. It was the hunter who ‘won’ her and they went off to the museum then dropped her off. A couple months later he basically hit her with an arrow through the heart when she woke up one night and dragged her to a Cathedral where he tortured her for all she knew (nada) and killed her.

It sucked! I talked to the ST’s and they basically said yeah it stands (they hadn’t been around while this was happening) and it did nothing to the story and just sucked in general. I left this game cuz it was soboring for me (a non-fighter and certainly not a rules person)

The second game I played was actually the previous version of this one (I no longer live near enough to play, sadly). This one was great. We played once per month, there is a downtime system set up so that each month was a year. Actions took place in between, you could build up your haven and influence and such. It was really cool, and the sheets we got each month were really detailed.

My character in this one had come to London to search for her sire’s killer. She was low on the political radar but just happened to be the oldest of her clan there (10th gen Gangrel). It took her quite awhile but she did find the killer, and challenged him. She nearly died but did manage to hurt him a little (he was a Brujah, older and stronger than her) and gained his respect. She swore off her vendetta so she would live and though they were never friends had a mutual non-antagonism pact. When she did die it was a little over halfway through the game during the lupine wars. This did happen during downtime, but the ST’s wrote out little stories for each death (and a number of people did die at this time, hardly any before though). It just fit so well. I still have her death tale (if anyone is curious) and read it every so often. It brings tears to my eyes because it was so RIGHT. I mean, I was sad she’d died but it just fit so well with the story and wasn’t just “Well yeah, you’re dead.”

In all that rambling I guess I’m saying that I feel the deaths should fit the story. If they are obviously being idiotic and doing stuff that would kill them then yeah they die. But if they expect to go into extreme detail just to have a character killed when they take a step I’m not gonna play. I go for the story, the interaction and fighting when it fits.

LARPs are a different kettle o’ fish. I’ve never run a LARP campaign, and have never enjoyed the four or five I tried playing in. But when we ran one-shot larps a few times in the mid-nineties, we usually had a handful of character deaths. Often the people who died were those who were happiest with their experiences: deaths tended to happen i the most dramatic scenes :).

One LARP we played in, however, was really stupid vis-a-vis the death rules. The guys who ran it did very little for character generation: they basically filled out Werewolf character sheets, by which I mean they put a bunch of dots in appropriate places, told you your rank and moon sign and tribe, and set you loose. Due to how they’d created characters, mortal enemies tended to encounter each other within about two minutes of entering the game, and so the game consisted of little beyond tedious combat, while the GMs feverishly filled out more dots on more character sheets to replace fallen PCs. Eventually we all gathered together, declared a final combat against the GM, and gave him back our character sheets. There was a good pizzeria just down the block.