There’s a certain pride some RPG Gamemasters take in killing off as many player characters as possible. A pride in death so narrow in its execution and so pusillanimous in its formidability as to astound graveyards. It’s talked about with a respect and steel to it: these are real games, with real threats, with real stakes, where you can feel the grit between your teeth.
It's also absolutely boring.
RPG’s contain two concurrent elements that run in tandem with each other. That they function together is a bit of a miracle, but without either they lose the whole. These two elements could be called the RP (the roleplaying) and the G (the game). On the one hand, you have a group of players performing and developing characters who explore a fictional world. On the other hand you have a framework that runs the characters, a stage for them they cannot exit, a game with rules and boundaries. Every RPG group will have a different balance of these two elements, after all no two people are alike and it's perfectly fine that they’d have different interests from each other Some groups will weigh towards the RP: they’ll focus much more on the interaction of the characters, their lives and developments. Some groups will focus more on the G: playing with the rules of the game, and defeating the challenges that come across them using the game mechanics.
However, if this mix gets too out of balance, you may as well not be playing an RPG anymore. If you get too focused on RP, you might as well chuck the dice and rulebooks out the windows and just sit around talking in character for a few hours. If you get too focused on the G, you might as well chuck the rulebooks out and get out a board game. To be an RPG, both elements are there to some extent. The balance may shift, and vary, but there is always some of both.
But the topic here is of course my distaste for killing player characters off. Lets clarify that first, shall we? By this I don’t mean player characters shouldn’t die. By all means, if the characters do something reckless or dangerous there should be consequences to that. If the drama of the game is reaching a climax, even more so. But that’s not what I’m referring to: I’m talking about the idea that Gamemasters should strive to kill players throughout the campaign, and follow through on it. This mentality can cause more problems in a game than I think many Gamemasters realize, and I’ve sat through many campaigns where Gamemasters were unknowingly making many of their players miserable, and surprised when they started dropping out of the game, skipping sessions, or simply going through the game zombie-like, performing rote actions without passion.
So what’s going wrong here?
The simple answer is: different players have different preferences on what the balance of RP and G are in a game. There’s more to it, but let’s start there. Players who desire more G will get bored if too much of the game is just sitting around talking and interacting, players who desire more RP will get bored if too much of the game is just number crunching and die-rolling. In an ideal world, Gamemasters would be able to find groups consisting solely of players whose play style in an RPG closely mirrors their own, but in reality this nearly never happens. Most gaming groups are friends, or mutual acquaintances, and making these people unhappy can have consequences outside of the gaming table. Thus is extra important for Gamemasters to be aware of it, because when badly managed this can cause rows in real life, or more commonly a grumbling drifting apart.
This is at its most aggravating though, during player deaths.
Developing a character is hard. Most players aren’t able to simply drop into a character and begin playing that person in a developed way. Many experienced players have a few characters they can drop into quickly, or a few traits they can play up well to start, but this is window dressing over actual development. Even most actors take time to drop into a role, developing the role over rehearsal to understand and create a character they will perform. Some have mastered certain stock characters they can play on command as well, but that’s different from creating a new character to play.
If a player’s character is dying over and over, just as they are trying to develop that person, this teaches the player that developing a character isn’t something that’s rewarded in the game. For a player more concerned with RP elements than than G elements, this can be kill the whole experience. After all, if you are less concerned with maximizing a character’s potential to survive encounters than developing their backstory and continued personality, then it's less likely they are going to survive an encounter. Ironically, this means a character that’s less developed as a person might survive longer than one who seems more fleshed out and real.
I’ve played and Gamemastered for nearly two decades, and I’m only 27. In that time, I’ve seen a lot of frustration with character death. Every player at some point loses a character they care about, and that’s just part of the nature of RPG’s. You’re telling a story, and in stories just like in real life, people die. Character loss can drive games, can be genuinely moving, or ridiculously memorable. Sometimes players can be upset at the simple fact that a character in a game can die, and learning to let go of that character can be a valuable learning experience for a person. In the right circumstances, the death of a character can even be hilarious. But what character death shouldn’t be is frustrating. It shouldn’t feel like a punishment for players who simply want to play the game differently than their Gamemaster. Ideally, we could all find groups that perfectly match our own playstyles. In reality, most of us would rather play with our friends even though they might have different tastes.
So I don’t kill characters for no reason, and I don’t take pride it in when I do. My goal isn’t to show off what a powerful Gamemaster I am, it’s to tailor a game to my players they can enjoy. This means making sure that games I run have both the RP and the G. For the record, I’ve definitely run into games that were imbalanced towards the RP that left G players bored to tears, but there have been far fewer of them than the reverse. A good game is going to give something to all of its players, even if the balance isn’t what every player would like ideally, there’s going to be something there for them. With experience a Gamemaster can learn to tailor the experience of their games so that players can each have the experience they want in a session, mixing up a variety of encounters and objectives that let different players have their moment to shine. No Gamemaster will be perfect at it, but it’s something to be aware of.
So Gamemasters of the world, tailor your games to your players, not just to yourself. You have to play with the group you have, not the group you want. If your group is happy with how it is, great, don’t change it. But if you’ve been noticing problems, or remember a person who used to be super excited about joining your game and then stopped coming, think about what you offered them at the table. Was it what they wanted? Was it something you could provide?
Cause chances are, there’s a great player out there who just wants to develop a character’s life rather than optimize their combat statistics who is just waiting to liven up your table.
Poet, Playwright, Game Designer, Writer, Freelancer for hire.