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.

The Charts

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.

About  Guest Author

The article you just read was written by a Gnome Stew reader. We can’t say which one in this bio, since the bio appears with all guest articles, but whoever they are we can all agree that they possess supernatural beauty and magical powers, and are generally awesome. Gnome Stew readers rock!



20 Responses to What Damage Means

  1. I’ve dealt with the subject of death on my blog before, and I’m firmly of the opinion that as long as the death means something, it shouldn’t be whitewashed by GM call. Bad deaths can still happen though, and I think a nice challenge for the GM is framing it in a way that makes it seem more important.

    As for damage points; designing my own game at the moment where the PCs are steampunk robots – fully aware and sentient – and damage means just that. The more you take, the more likely you are to malfunction until eventually you cease to function. Repair rather than healing means standing back up is almost always possible in a way that makes sense too. Anyone interested in such a game should check out the design blog – http://riseoftheautomata.wordpress.com/

    • Absolutely, GM whitewashing is bad. But by leaving the decision to the players as to what happens, it allows non-killer DMs like myself to not pull punches while giving the players choices that always advance the narrative.

      I’ll be giving your design blog a look soon, sounds pretty awesome.

  2. Palladium’s TMNT (after the bomb) used to have some sort of mechanic similar to this if I remember right. If you were hurt really bad but not killed you rolled on a sort of fears/phobias/flaws table. I had a character that rolled a phobia of loud noises. Not a good flaw to have in a game with a lot of gun fights.

  3. The article brought up “How will I avenge my family now?” as a consequence of having it’s character killed, but it’s equally bad to kill off the player’s goal. Let say that you are fighting through a maze with the only goal to see your children again. What happens if you see a video where your children are killed? You got nothing left to fight for.

    If you really want to play out a narrative, don’t play games where the characters can die. A system that got crit rules are obviously not designed for creating that kind of a story. One may now think that there is nothing to challenge the players if the characters can’t be killed but the characters isn’t the only thing that the player can be invested in. The thing is also that conflicts aren’t the only way of creating tension. There are heaps of ways, where one is the uncertainty of how the story develops. Let them fail at what they are doing, but always offer a new way if the players are fails. Killing a character (or it’s goal) is just failing without any offer of something new happening.

    Let say that the children are the reason why you’re put in this maze in the first place. How will that change your goal? Have you done something to your children that made them put you here? Can you get your children to forgive you? I think the solution given in this article just patch up a problem instead of attacking the real issue. Sure, the patch will work but I think it’s important to take a step out of the conflict thinking which brought this problem up in the first place.

    As a curiosity: I had players killing their own characters in games where they can’t die, and I think two things contributed to this. 1) They had total control over their character which made more open to the idea of dying. 2) They wouldn’t continue playing the character – it was just one shots we played – and therefore could off their character to fit the drama.

    No randomness never helps creating drama over character deaths. Sure, it can happen but that’s more a coincident than a rule.

    • Really good points. I agree that many systems like d&d don’t lend themselves to providing narrative in that manner, but the great thing about RPGs as a whole is that they are malleable to the group’s desires. Part of the fun as a DM is taking those players who may not care for more “story oriented” play and give them tiny bits of narrative control, just to see how they run with it.

    • Typo above: “No randomness *ever* help…”, not never.

    • D&D has different underlying assumptions that aren’t really narrativist in nature. If you’re looking for a game to support collaborative storytelling, one designed for drama perhaps try Fate or this lil’ gem http://gdrfree.altervista.org/thepool/doc/thePUDDLE.pdf .

      D&D(3e) has more of a strategy game build to it with calculated risk taking built-in and optimising. Older versions have more to do with risk mitigation via very careful play rather than optimization. The reward for these play/build choices being greater power. In most games there’s a narrative happening too. The game mechanics themselves have little to do with it other than your choice of class/build determining to some degree your role in the story. Changing the HP meaning just sort of slices the corners off of a square peg to fit it poorly into a round hole.

      Now, I take issue with the statement “No randomness ever helps creating drama over character deaths,” because that’s simply not true. While it certainly doesn’t create/aid in formatting a game to mimic TV, movie, or novel style format of drama, it does create a different kind of drama unique to RPGs. When your character’s life hangs in the balance, you feel some small piece of that tension while the die comes to a stop. It’s a hell of a dramatic moment for both the character and the player. Assuming the system is making a genuine attempt to model reality via dice (immersive-simulationist), this creates a sort of narrative structure unlike anything else and moments of life-like high drama. (I don’t play much D&D anymore because I don’t like it’s underlying assumptions.)

      So, ya, long rant short, system matters. Drama doesn’t just mean 3 act TV drama.

      • Yeah, I agree. Using the character’s life as an investment creates excitement. I had the “3rd act TV drama” in mind when I used the word “drama” and that’s the only thing I meant with it. Otherwise, you’re totally right.

      • System matters is one of the abiding things I took away from GNS theory. That being said, I often find myself running games that the players are comfortable with instead of games that might be better suites to their play style, hence some house rulings that morphed into this article. I’ll have to check out your link when I get home, always interested in new systems.

    • That’s pretty badass. I would totally love to run a game with that.

      Also, I wrote this article before I played Dungeon World, otherwise I would have alluded to how they handle death as well, as it’s pretty clever. That whole system is clever.

  4. There’s also the Eclipse Phase variant – in the future, people’s personalities/memories can be uploaded, so as long as there’s still backups, you can be re-sleeved into a new body. It’s like taking the weird feeling that revolving-door-afterlife D&D has, and turning it into one of the game’s main features.

    • Is there any penalty or effect for death in Eclipse Phase? Reading your comment makes me think of Paranoia, what with the clones and all. I have no experience with Eclipse Phase at all, so is death even a big deal at all in it?

  5. There’s always the Fate/Hero Point to let the player somehow survive. In Dark Heresy and it’s sister games the players who survive are often horribly mangled.

    Example: I had a player die to an energy weapon to the face. He burned a Fate Point and lived, but his face was horribly burnt and his eyes had melted out of their sockets. He ended up with a grotesque mask and cybernetic eyes, but boy did he remember that death.

    • I always liked the concept of Hero Points / burning Edge / spending EXP to prevent death, but too often it isn’t paired with the follow-up narrative mechanics that really seal the deal for me. I’m the kind of GM that needs mechanics and systems to provide content for me, though. My story line creativity is not very good, so when a game can help with it, I’ll tend to run it more often than not.

  6. During my last game, I had a player ask me “What does it take to die in this system” after he’d run out of hp and I let him off easy with crippling pain for the rest of the session. Which tells me that either I did not provide sufficient explanation for my system, or I am way too lenient with my players.
    I like your idea, and even if some games bring the idea of “surviving with consequences”, such as in Dragon Age and in Fate (and even Mordheim!), you bring in the player’s choice aspect, which they can in turn work into their story.
    I love giving my players creative license by giving them a chance to create a game element every session (I tried giving them homework, but that was a fail).
    Trauma, handicap or flaw, as chosen by the player (and appropriate to the wound) sounds great and would ad a great layer to my game. I have a rules-light yet realistic approach to combat, but didn’t think enough of the consequences of said combat yet. I’ll try it out!

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