OngoingWorlds blog

News & articles about play-by-post games, for roleplayers & writers


Roleplaying Focus – Should a GM Make Player Characters Die?

Leon Archer, GM of Spellbound

Leon Archer, GM of Spellbound

Hello everyone! I am Leon Archer, also better known as Phantasmagoria on Ongoing Worlds. I’m the creator and GM for the popular game Spellbound as well as a few various other little projects I shall be working on over the next few weeks (Shameless Advertising :D)

Right, I am hoping that this will be one of many articles I will be writing on the Ongoing Worlds’ blog. It’s my little bit I’m calling Roleplaying Focus. Every couple of weeks I’ll be writing up on various techniques used by myself and my fellow roleplayers to create interesting games, creative characters, and entertaining players.

Today’s topic is about death. Not the existence of an afterlife sort, mind. No, I’ll be discussing about killing off player’s characters in-game.

  • Is it a bad thing or a good thing?
  • Should players ever die as a consequence of their actions?
  • Can killing a player be used a powerful storytelling tool?

To help with this debate, I have the comments from Josh from the game USS ProvidenceIf you like Sci-fi games seriously check his out. It’s some good stuff right there.

Josh's Twitter picJosh: Whether or not a GM should make a player character die depends on the style of the game and, in a way, the attitude of the player.

Sometimes, a game may run for a while with no casualties, no loss, and no sense that the events being played out are real in any way. Granted, it’s all fiction, but are we trying to portray an environment where our players are immune to consequences? Or are we portraying the game universe in a realistic fashion?

Leon ArcherPhantasmagoria: A very true statement. A game needs a sense of danger that doing something stupid may result in loss of some description, but killing off the character outright may end up being detrimental to the game overall. Realism helps define a believable story, but a player’s characters are important to them.

Destroying them is whichever chosen manner of brutalism simply ends up that that player won’t put as much detail and emotion into their next character, if they continue to keep playing. Death is pretty finite.

Josh's Twitter picJosh: You may occasionally have a player that likes to ‘godmode’. That is, he thinks that, albeit that he’s an ensign, he can do anything and everything and will be the one to save the day. So he may fix the warp core, beam to the planet and kill a hundred Borg without breaking a sweat. I don’t think we should encourage our players to be this way. Not everyone can be the hero. Rather, the crew is a group entity.

If there is anything we’ve seen from select episodes of TNG and DS9, it’s that main characters are not immune. Thus, there may be times that our own game members aren’t immune. Some games may explicitly say that the story plot is being run ‘with safeties off’, thus giving everyone a warning that, if you do something stupid (example: take on a Romulan warbird on your own in a shuttle), you may die.

Leon ArcherPhantasmagoria: This is a tricky one. If your character does some monumentally stupid, then yes they should die. But there’s tons of ways to avoid this. Provide warnings in-game, such as a NPC trying to hold back a player from opening an airshaft to a short monologue describing how futile and hopeless the next action is going to be.

Josh's Twitter picJosh: When your players know that their actions have consequences, they’ll be prone to play them more realistically. You don’t want a hot headed security chief who thinks he can kill everything. Rather, you want one that knows the importance of planning a strategy of attack before jumping into the fray.

Thus, I do believe there are times that the GM should be able to kill (or, more often, injure) player characters. The GM is acting as the universe. Our players need to know that the universe isn’t one where the good guys always win and heroes never die. The game universe is no different than real life.

Leon ArcherPhantasmagoria: Actions should always have meaning, but by the very nature of a player controlling a character, they are already superior to any other character within the game. No-one wants to play a game being a dull no-body with no chance. The play has to feel that they have a chance to progress, to beat the odds, to be a hero! Dying may be an opinion, but it’s the easy way out. There are tons of different things that could be done instead. A player’s character is a persona of that creator. They want their character to be there, to be interacting with that world. To kill them off is quintessentially shutting them out of that world.

Using Killing as a Tool

So, we’ve looked at killing a character off, the pros and cons of each side. As a GM, killing off a player is a very powerful tool at their disposal, one that can be used for many useful things. For example it can be used to clear up a game where players have disappeared over the course of the game’s lifetime. It provides closure for the character and is also an extra bit of storyline that the continuing players can use to roleplay.

Some people prefer to dispose of players in a slight more humane, and retractable way. The following is from Anthony from Star Trek Freedom on his thoughts on AFK players:

Anthony Keen“Most of the time, departed member’s characters are sent to Starbase Geneva, our control Starbase and base of operations. Its roster is overflowing with departed characters but you’ll be surprised that 5 years can go by and I can someone asking me to bring their bio back to life… thanks to either me keeping it safe or keeping incremental backups of the website’s database!!!

We’ve had the occasion to make an event of someone’s character leaving, the transporter accident that left parts of the characters all over the place or the killer pot plant that consumed a player was also funny and everyone on that ship got involved… it was fun and usually the person leaving doesn’t care, is in on the joke or has no intention of coming back.

Looking at it from your own characters point of view, I’ve killed my own characters off in great ways in the past though I can’t kill my oldest (he can never go a mission without crashing his ship into a planet… the crew are adept are building launch ramps now), I’ve had one kidnapped to Cardassian and put to death, even though I had spent many years building him up and it seemed a good ending for him.

TBH I’ve tried several different things, including taking on far too many NPCs than I can handle. I can’t claim I’ve had anyone killed by a pot plant, but I will admit to killing characters in funny way… just because I can I suppose! I’m definitely in favour of doing something, even if it’s just explaining that the character leaves to go elsewhere. Sometimes if it’s a character who’s had a long history in your sim, you own it to them to have a decent leaving party, even if it’s a silly death.”

So what do you think about player killing? Is it wrong and should never be done? Do you think it is a good tool and should be used as such? Should the element of danger in your game result in death?

Let me know what you think, and I’ll see you next time!
~Leon Archer, Phantasmagoria