Friday, April 10, 2015


There is a wide spectrum of lethality in RPGs, and there are GMs who fall on every possible point within it. These range from GMs who run campaigns where PCs can never die to the other extreme—GMs who delight in killing PCs. Where do you fall on this spectrum?

First, games shouldn't be dictated by the DM. A game's tone, rules, objectives, rewards, tests, and punishments should be agreed upon by everyone before the game even begins, even if tacitly.  For example, if someone says "Let's play Paranoia!", they are proposing a certain type of game.  Lethality is one of those characteristics.

All different levels of lethality can be fun and desirable for different groups.  A lot of this has to do with genre expectations.  In a DCC funnel of CoC, it is expected that the PCs will die in horrible ways, often.  In a superhero game, the opposite is true.

Whenever there is a disconnect between player-DM expectations (or player-player expectations) there is an opportunity for friction.

If the players find themselves dying more than expected, the DM might be a killer DM, who physically eats the character sheets of dead characters and cackles while shitting them out.  

If the players find themselves dying less than expected, the DM might be a big softie who faints at the sight of blood.  (This is less common, for reasons I'll go into below.)

So to finally answer the question of "where do I fall on this spectrum", the answer is "mostly where my players expect me to".  However, I'm not shy about letting players die.  (And I do see it as "letting characters die" as opposed to "killing characters".)

When I DM, I try to be a neutral arbiter.  I cheer when I see my friends having fun, and I sometimes shed a tear when they are lamenting the death of a beloved character.  Because, to me, it is all about experiencing the ups and the downs of another reality.  It might not be fun to have your character die, but it is memorable (often more memorable than succeeding).

And I think that if I had to choose one feature to maximize, I would rather have a memorable, mind-blowing game that was moderately fun instead of a hugely fun game that was moderately memorable.  (If I wanted to have fun, I'd play the new Smash Bros.  That game is amazing.  But perhaps not so memorable, moment-to-moment.)

And player death provides that impact.  Or more carefully phrased: the risk of player death provides that impact.


How lethal are your games and why? 


Right now I'm running an OSR game, levels 1-3.  Someone usually dies every couple of sessions.


How do you handle PC death if and when it happens?


Sometimes players die in big ways (exploding elephant golems, gored by Satan's shoulderpads).  Sometimes players die in trivial ways (gnawed to death by rats, dysentery).  Regardless of how they die, I try to make it meaningful.
  • Give them a chance for last words.
  • Describe their deaths in additional detail.  Pay attention to what happens to the corpse, and if it is properly buried and the correct rites are said over it.  (PC funerals are an underutilized thing, I believe.)
  • Be sure to touch on how all the various NPCs and factions react to the death.
In my home game (OSR), resurrection limited to rumors.  Exotic locations exist that can bring a character back from the dead, usually with great danger or a heavy cost.  Death isn't something that is escaped.  (And so far, no one has ever wanted a resurrection so much that they'll actually follow the rumors.  The living don't care much for the dead.)

Many DMs try to avoid "meaningless" deaths.  They take steps (either in encounter construction, fudging the dice, fudging the fiction) to keep players from being gnawed to death by rats, because, honestly, it's a bit ignoble to be gnawed to death by rats.  According to this line of thinking, the PCs are heroes of their stories, and deserve only heroic deaths.

(Note to self.  Put some rats in my next dungeon.  Lots of rats.)

While there is nothing wrong with this philosophy, and you can have many fun games while protecting PCs from permanent death, I don't prefer it.

If you didn't want the possibility that a PC might be gnawed to death by rats, then why have the rats do damage at all?  (This is a corollary to: if one of the results of a die roll is unacceptable, then don't make it a die roll in the first place.)

Reasons to include player death in your games:
  1. Make the game more memorable and impactful.  (Is impactful a real word?)
  2. Contribute to the genre simulation (i.e. make gritty games feel gritty).
  3. Makes victory significant.
  4. Provide a punishment (in addition to the normal rewards that a game offers.
I've already touched on the first two, now I'll address the fourth.

Carrots and Sticks

So, there are a number of ways reward the players (I'm not interested in the characters).
  1. Empowerment, like when they feel like badasses.
  2. Amazement, like when they experience parts of your awesome new world.
  3. World goals, like when they save the princess.
There's other things that are desirable, too, like consistency (when the world behaves as you'd expect it to behave and no one cheats) and story-telling (when an interesting story is told through the game), but I'm not listing those two things under the list of rewards, because those are things that happen naturally through the game.  Those aren't things that are used specifically to reward good gameplay.

Consistency and storytelling are just things that happen on their own (although you could argue that players will sometimes indulge in things just for the sake of storytelling, which is a reward in itself.)

And here's the list of punishments.
  1. Failure to achieve world goals, like when the princess elopes with Bowser.
  2. Embarrassment, like when you try to seduce the barmaid but instead just get drunk and fall in a well.
  3. Death (temporary or permanent).
So, if you remove death from the equation, there's not a whole lot of ways to punish a player.  Death is huge because you lose the character.  The player is probably emotionally invested in their character, to some degree.  And of course, dying means that you are out of the game until you make a new character.

I prefer it when all options are on the table.  Don't rule out any possibility.  (This is similar to the philosophy that all parts of the character sheet can be attacked--HP, ability scores, XP, inventory, money, etc.)  To protect characters from character death is to protect them from part of the stick, resulting in a smaller concept-space of what types of failure are possible.

This blog post was written for the Round Table of Doom

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you’d like to submit a topic for our future discussions, or if you’re a blogger who’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at

This month's topic comes to us courtesy of +Lex Starwalker.

Other blog posts on the same topic:

Inspiration Strikes

Strange Encounters

Starwalker Studios

Adventures, Planar in Nature

A Sage Among His Books


  1. "If you didn't want the possibility that a PC might be gnawed to death by rats, then why have the rats do damage at all? "

    Because sometimes the PC doesn't KNOW what you'll accept.
    (though to be fair I've had players die from some pretty lamentable things.)

  2. Do you know Homestuck?
    In it, there is a rule that gods (which is a status of a player) can only die by either a just or heroic death, first includes being killed as vengeance for a crime, second includes, of course, sacrifizing one self.
    I found that concept quite interesting, and it would fit into the idea of "being gnawed to death by rats is not rememorable".