An empty Death is a terrible thing
When Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) died in Star Trek: The Next Generation, there was an outcry amongst fans. Not because the character had been killed off so much as because she died what was later described even within the series as “an empty death” – a death without meaning, carried out purely to demonstrate how evil and powerful the enemy that week – a pool of black goo – was.
We expect our heroes to survive, or to die a heroic death. Either is usually an acceptable option.
Wandering through the Wilderness
That means that wandering monsters and random encounters should never put a PC at risk. This imposes a tricky burden on the GM, because without the potential threat, such encounters are empty and meaningless – and boring.
The solution to this conundrum is to make sure that such random encounters are always plot-significant in some way. That in turn means that any danger they pose is entirely warranted, and the GM can institute such threats with a clear conscience.
Snippets of information
This changes the problem from a difficult one to something that is easily manageable with a bit of pre-planning. The question now becomes how to impart significance to random encounters.
Well, there are two types of encounter – those that will be trivial because they pose no threat to the PCs, and those that will not be trivial. There’s no need to impart significance to the first, which leaves only the second; and those are almost always encounters with sentient creatures. Which offers a solution – by using them to solve a second problem.
GMs always have a lot of information to impart to the players. Information overload is something that is all too easy to incur. By using these random encounters as a conduit for nuggets and snippets of such information, the encounter becomes one of significance.
That is not the end of the story, of course. It makes no sense for high-value information to come from a low-value encounter; for the information to be valued by the PCs it must carry a risk proportionate to its value.
The solution is to break the information to be imparted to the PCs down into individual chunks. Keep a list, sorted or rated by importance. When an encounter takes place, select the appropriate piece of information from the list. Give minimal or even misleading context. Treat them like rumors – because that’s exactly what they are.
There’s a side-benefit to this approach. High-level players who over-rely on Teleport for hit-and-run dungeon crawls will suddenly find that they are leaping into a situation blind, and having to work twice as hard, simply because they are bypassing all the informative nuggets that the GM has prepared. The GM can give his bad guys any enhancement they need with a clear conscience – complete immunity to whatever they are normally vulnerable to, for example, or the fact that they have allies. In fact, whatever is necessary to make them suitably difficult for the PCs to overcome – simply because they have chosen to ignore the hints and clues and advance warning that the GM has provided for them.
The surrogacy alternative
Another approach is to ensure that fatalities in meaningless encounters are experienced by NPCs – surrogates. Redshirts, if you will. While most GMs dislike the practice to some extent, because it drastically increases the workload during play, most PCs like to surround themselves with NPCs. If they are going to do that anyway, why not take advantage of the fact?
An Empty Life is a terrible thing
Originally, this is where this article was going to end. But then I received an email from one of my former players, someone that I had contacted regarding the death of my friend and player, Stephen, about whom I wrote on Monday. In the process of catching up with each other, he related the following story (slightly edited):
I’ve only been involved with one gaming group here in the US, ran by my ex-wife’s brother – it was not bad, fairly interesting, but he had a REAL problem with ‘player death’ in that it never happened… even if you WANTED it to happen – which really conflicted with the style he was trying to run for his world. He was shooting for something that felt like epic myth, but failed to take into account that in all the great epics, the hero’s death is a major point. Without typing up 10 pages of backstory, I’ll try to summarize what happened, and actually annoyed me to the point of leaving the group a short time later.
As with most big epic stories, our main enemy was a Loki type demigod – you know, bastard half-son trickster, red-headed stepchild type that was just a malevolent PITA for us constantly… especially moi, who would take every opportunity to snub, insult, and generally just mess with him.
We came to a big story point in this game where we were holding back a horde of beasties from the gates of the major city – undermanned and outnumbered, you get the deal – so the big bad guy decides to personally turn up. At this point I was saying to myself ‘enough is enough’. We broke for dinner at this point as a cliffhanger and I quietly plotted something that would probably end the entire conflict, possibly foul up this demigod really nasty, but will 100% kill my character. I figured ‘epic hero setting, this will be awesome, I get to die the huge epic hero death!’
In a previous ‘solo hero quest’, my character (an exceptional archer) had been given a bow with a bunch of fairly nice arrows and some nifty properties. One was an arrow that does no damage when it hits a target but which permits the next arrow I fire from anywhere to hit that target. I had already abused this on one occasion to blackmail a King – shot him in the neck and left it at that (the DM was “Hmmm I didn’t think of THAT!”).
Another was an arrow that just sent someone ‘home’ – their home and hearth. Pretty useless, you might think. And finally, the bow: if I cut my palm on the bowstring prior to firing, whatever I shot lost hit points if they tried to advance on me past the point where they were when it hit them – but I would also lose 1/4 of the HP inflicted on the target.
If you’re thinking ahead you can see where this is leading. This demigod turns up at the gates and summons more beasties to reinforce the attacking hoards. I shout out to him, so he can see me good and proper as I aim, hit him with the ‘mark’ arrow right on his left shoulder. He laughs and gives his ‘puny mortal’ speech. Off goes a second arrow, which hits him in the forehead; it bounces off and I just say ‘home!’, sending him back to the underworld he crawled out from. The DM is scratching his head at this point, right up until the next round when I say ‘Okay, I’m cutting my palm on the bowstring’.
The whole table went silent. It was priceless. The DM asked me roll – and I get a critical success! …and I just casually ask ‘So, how far away IS the underworld… in meters?’
The point being that I had set up the villain. He would HAVE to travel back to make an example of one who had DARED not only to touch him, but had shot him three times. That sort of affront you can’t leave rest! He’d travel back, sustaining damage the whole way. He would be so damaged that at he’d probably be banished to underworld to lick his wounds, and either way an entire city of defenders would see him all jacked up by a mortal. Of course I’d already be dead when he arrived; I’d be in the negative millions of hit points, there was no coming back from this, and I knew exactly what I was doing…. Epic Hero, Epic Death.
It didn’t happen that way. In ‘the nick of time’ all the battle clerics joined hands and did some heal critical riff in unison, and throw in some unasked for and improbable Divine Intervention and wow, I lived. How did the Battle Clerics even know what I was doing? I was the only person in game that would be privy to exactly what I’d planned and executed!
So I survived, but the character wasn’t fun to play anymore. No moment in future gaming with that character could possibly rival that moment, that was the pinnacle, and thus should have been the end point for that character.
The point that Peter is making with this story is that the GM should not have messed with the Players intentions. By bending everything all out of shape to keep the character alive, against the deliberate intent of the player he cheapened the entire expression of genre within the campaign.
In a nutshell, he railroaded the campaign. Really, REALLY badly. There were two possible motives for this: One, it messed with the big finish that he had planned; and/or two, he wanted to be sure that all the PCs had a share in the glory.
And it wasn’t necessary. A little flexibility, a little creativity, and a willingness to discard the big finish that he had planned, would have enabled the GM to up the ante enormously. Writing off the cuff, I replied with the following:
I would have let your action succeed, and let your character die. That of course would not have stopped the events that the bad guy had set in motion – someone from his army would have appointed themselves his heir and successor. The rest of the PCs barely escape with their lives, and the bad guys’ forces run rampant.
Meanwhile, you and your enemy get to confront each other in an afterlife that should not exist and did not exist until you killed this demigod – your enmity is so strong that it transcends death. Not that either of you can actually hurt each other any more, your stats have all equalized from the release of the energies that had made the bad guy semi-divine.
The new #1 bad guy then figures out that his previous master is not completely dead and can be used as a power source, permitting him to up the ante even further. What he doesn’t realize is that he is expending a limited store of energy. The rest of the PCs figure out where he is getting his seemingly-inexhaustible supply of energy (without realizing what the source is) and set out to cut off the supply. They appear by your side in the afterlife.
At this point you all have a clear advantage over the former demigod enemy, but you have realized in the meantime that simply killing him will release his power in its entirety to the former #2 – with no-one left to stop the new Bad Guy.
The only solution: for the rest of the PCs to give up their escape route to free you from the afterlife, taking your place, because you are now the only being around with enough power to take down the #2 after the rest of the PCs do the old #1 in, once and for all. In other words, “If, in an epic climax, a PC comes up with a masterstroke, let it work – then up the ante again”.
An empty death is no worse than an empty life. Unfairly preserving the life of a PC, in Peter’s example, undermined the value of that PC’s entire life.
The Lessons Of Life And Death
The next time you are planning an encounter in a game, make sure that any PC death resulting from it will be a meaningful death, and not a random act of violence designed to make the villain look mean. Any time a PC dies, it should be important to the plot. And if a Hero decides to save the world with a Heroic Sacrifice, don’t cheapen it by undermining the Death. Make sure the player knows the consequences of his choice, and then say ‘yes’. Then up the ante in an even bigger finish if you have to do something to involve the other PCs.