Today’s guest article is by Gnome Stew reader Kyle Van Pelt, and it looks at alternatives to PC death for campaigns where narrative concerns need to be balanced against preserving a sense of danger. Thanks, Kyle!
We’re all familiar with unexpected PC death. You would have had enough HP to survive the monster’s tail swipe, but then it criticaled, knocking you into a spike pit trap and breaking all but one of the seventeen acid flasks you were carrying. So there you sit, watching your carefully crafted alchemist drown-burning in a pool of failure and stab wounds. You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, but c’mon, that prophecy was just saying that you were the one to save the kingdom from inevitable doom! Where’s the heroics here? How will I avenge my family now?
Some will say that it’s the DM’s job to prevent this sort of thing from happening, but that only serves to diminish the excitement by removing the danger of death. However, is it really the danger of death that gives the adventure that edge?
Let’s use the video game Prey for a brief example. In Prey, whenever you would be killed, you are transported to a spirit realm where you hunt spirits and regain your strength to return to the land of the living. You are literally unable to be killed. This differs from the arcade game-style “lives” system where when you die, you lose a life and begin at the start of the level. The reason it’s different is that “lives” present a sense of failure by reducing the amount of remaining chances you have to succeed, unlike Prey, which presents no penalty for failure at all.
So that’s mainly what HP and its ilk do for your character: present a way for you to determine if you fail or succeed during combat, at least on a personal level. Death is the penalty for failure. However, why don’t we try keeping a failure state without it implying death?
Heroic Perseverance and Flaws
Characters are meant to grow over time, hence leveling systems and storyline development. However, in most stories, heroes fail at some point, or at least suffer huge setbacks. It’s how most traditional stories work: the Three-Act structure. Act 1 sets the stage, Act 2 puts the hero in a seemingly unwinnable situation, Act 3 sees the hero win (usually).
So here’s a basic proposition: Instead of death, why not have your character fall unconscious temporarily and also suffer some sort of permanent mental or physical disadvantage when their HP total hits zero? This allows your character to keep living, but forces them to live with the consequences of their failure. This also prompts some character growth, not in terms of levels and powers, but in roleplaying terms.
In particular, whenever a character would take a lethal wound, the player may opt to either accept the character’s death or take a Heroic Flaw. This Heroic Flaw would have a permanent effect on the character, whether that be a new Disadvantage, the loss of a Feat, a reduction on an Attribute score, or even a strictly roleplayed personality quirk that leads to EXP loss if not followed.
The player and DM would need to work together to find a suitable flaw that fits the method of “death” (like a fear of fire if “killed” by a fireball) and the character’s ongoing story. The character would then be incapacitated until the next scene, or whenever it would be most suitable — just not during the current scene. Any time this happens again, you could increase the severity of an existing Heroic Flaw or the character could acquire a new one, whichever the player prefers.
My poor alchemist above could have potentially escaped this situation, but not without problems. Perhaps he now has a significant fear of acid, and needs to change class. Perhaps the acid took his eyesight. Maybe he also gains a vengeful hatred of those tail-swiping monsters, and vows to destroy each one he comes across. Maybe he is saved by some sort of deity, and now must obey the deity’s commands or lose the new gift of life he was granted.
This also lends curiosity to NPCs and PCs with these disadvantages, since now most people will wonder how those flaws were acquired, giving a touch of flavor to your characters. Also, recurring villains are now much more plausible, since you can give them the same power of tenacity that the PCs have. After all, ever since the PCs melted his face with holy light, his vengeance may be the only thing keeping him alive. Just make sure he stays dead when the time is right, and make sure the wounds the PCs inflict on your villain are significant and memorable.
Here’s a quick-and-dirty guideline to help determine sufficient penalties for “death.”
Upon receiving a life-threatening, but non-lethal wound:
- Acquire a low-cost Mental Quirk/Disadvantage related to the wound,
- Receive a temporary -1 penalty to an Attribute or Skill
- If your character is still able to fight, you may opt to fall unconscious instead of taking a flaw
Your character “comes back” at the end of the current scene.
Upon receiving a lethal wound:
- Acquire a medium-cost Mental or Physical Disadvantage, or remove an existing Advantage/Feat/Trait.
- Receive a permanent -1 penalty to an Attribute or Skill.
- Increase the penalty of an existing wound-related Flaw.
Your character “comes back” in 1d4 scenes, or whenever is most dramatically appropriate.
Upon receiving an “overkill” wound (one that would disintegrate your character or kill the soul, etc.):
- Acquire a high-cost Mental or Physical Disadvantage, or remove an existing Advantage/Feat/Trait.
- Receive a permanent -3 penalty to an Attribute or Skill.
- Increase the penalty of an existing wound-related Flaw AND receive a “lethal wound” level Flaw.
Your character cannot “come back” until a quest dedicated to bringing them back is completed. However, the player may still interact with the others by way of NPC play, ghostly telepathy/possession, or any other method which seems appropriate.
Sample Heroic Flaws
Here’s a basic table for some Heroic Flaws. You can roll a d12 or simply pick one, however, Flaws generally work best when you discuss the Flaws and their specifics with the players taking them.
1. Saved from the brink of death by a deity who enlists her for an objective that must remain hidden from the other party members.
2. Gains a significant fear of the damage source (creature, damage type, weapon, etc.) that almost killed her.
3. Gains an addiction to a particular healing or painkilling drug, potion, or spell effect.
4. Only kept alive by pure love/vengeance/grit; will die immediately after achieving her main goal.
5. Is unable to determine what is real and what is not, maybe convinced she is dreaming or dead.
6. Has recurring nightmares or flashbacks of the traumatic event or even past traumatic events.
7. A friend or relative must be sacrificed to the dark god that now holds her soul to bring her back to life; someone must volunteer or be chosen. A rumor suggests that the dark god’s prison of souls can be reached by someone who knows the gate ritual.
8. Gains a corruption or taint that never fades away, weakening her unless she obeys the whispering voices that accompany the curse. There may be a cure, but it said to be in a distant land.
9. Either an arm is destroyed, making wielding two-handed weapons or off-hand items impossible, or an eye is destroyed, granting a 25% penalty to all sight-related checks.
10. An alignment, class, or primary ability changes permanently due to a near-death epiphany.
11. Becomes paranoid or mistrusting of everyone, which may manifest in subtle or obvious ways. Examples include tattooing protection runes on herself, booby-trapping all her personal gear when not used, spying on the other characters, etc.
12. The wound will never heal, remaining unsightly and vulnerable. The character gains a Weakness to the damage type that wounded her. The wound will require constant maintenance and may also require a patch or mask to avoid being looked upon in social situations.
Death Isn’t All Bad
Sometimes, though, PCs need to die. Whether by heroic sacrifice, plot convenience, or sheer stupidity, death needs to happen to continue making the story work. Give the player the option of choosing death or flaws, thereby putting his PC’s life in his hands instead of yours, but also let the players know that when you say that someone dies for good, they die for good. Being transparent with your players on their character’s death is the best option, as they now can choose what they want that to mean, and often times their idea for a death that makes sense to their story can be more dramatic and insightful when done on their own terms.
You may also choose to implement a limit on how many Heroic Flaws you may take before your character is perma-dead. I find that anyone taking more than five is either extremely unlucky or is gaming the system to stay alive, but that all depends on how well you can read your players’ intentions and how interested they are in crafting a story for their character that has both a beginning and an end.
Finally, though, that end is what this is all about. Don’t let damage bring a perfectly good story to a premature end, but instead let it amplify the stakes at hand. Then, when the stories come to a close, you can look back at the journey, through all the trials and hardships caused by years of battle and adventure, and bring it to a meaningful end. Provide closure for the character, and then at this end state you can start another adventure anew with fresh characters.
Who knows what will happen next time? Just make sure to skip the acid flasks.