16 Jul GMing Tips #18: Death is Good

Death is a tool to be used just like any other. Don’t get squeamish! It’s quite possibly the best tool you’ve got… and here’s why:

I have a regular game I play with one of my close friends and playtesters (Jet), and we have a good groove going, but another friend (Paul) wanted to join in.

But to make it particularly fun, I had a special plan.

I told Jet that we would make the story together, to help introduce Paul to our game system and style. Paul was really used to playing D&D and Pathfinder, and I knew the one thing we needed to do was throw him off balance – to show him unequivocally that this was a totally different type of game.

So in the end, I decided that Jet would kill him. Sacrifice him for a great spell.

It was an epic twist. I must congratulate myself.

The one thing that players usually assume, the moment they sit down at a table, is that the other players are on their side. They trust them implicitly. Maybe the other players have some different backstory… but you don’t really need to pay attention to it, because you’re all there together to tackle the dungeon.

Not so in this story.

So Paul was led along a harrowing adventure, with Jet saving his life at every turn, and many small clues showing Paul (if he had been watching), that he was going to be a sacrifice in some great spell (which was, in fact, what would bring on the Black Death to the world… waaaay back in 1346).

There they were, standing around the altar at the end, Paul never really questioning why they were casting this spell, just believing all the lies Jet had fed him. Never truly suspecting. Even when the other worshippers started dying, he didn’t worry. Then Jet turned to him, at the apex of the spell… “Are you ready brother?”

“Yes!” said Paul.

“Good,” said Jet, and stabbed Paul’s character in the heart.

And do you know what? It was a brilliant move.

Some GMs might think that this just promotes intra-party conflict, strife, treason and so on. But in actual fact it does not. Paul told me that he hasn’t enjoyed a game that much since he was a kid. He’s got the passion for gaming back.


Death Makes Life Interesting

I think the biggest one is because it shows to him that this game is truly unpredictable. You have to be alert. You have to watch even other players. You’ve got to be your character and look out at the game world through their eyes, see it as they do. Why would you trust a stranger implicitly, even if they are another player character?

Related:  GM Tips #22: Do the Unexpected

Every game has to have rules. And in a story, or in a game, death is really the ultimate penalty. So if you don’t think that you can die, you’re going to be that much less involved and interested in the game. Likewise, if you don’t think another player can kill you then you’re less likely to find it as interesting or important to talk to them, to watch them, to look at them from the viewpoint of your character.

Sure, getting killed by another player is an extreme. But it ultimately comes down to unpredictability. How much does your character know the other characters? How much would you trust them? How important is it to observe them?

Ultimately, death makes life interesting.

Death is a Tool

It can be used in many ways.

Game of Thrones uses it very effectively to shock audiences, and to drive home the fact that no-one knows how it’s going to end. It’s that same sort of shock which can be very effective in an RPG if used properly.

Personally, my favourite games were always ones that had me worried that I could die quite easily. It was dangerous, and uncertain, and that made me sit up and pay attention!

What do you think? Have you ever used death as a tool? What other ways can it be used in games?

~Oliver R. Shead


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  • Rogue
    Posted at 23:26h, 16 July Reply

    I agree with this totally, without the fear of death I am simply not interested in a tabletop rpg that much. During our games people can die all the time, weapons were made to kill people. The players always seem to have fun and come back for more. Sometimes it might not be what you think the story needs, but is it though?

    • Oliver
      Posted at 00:46h, 17 August Reply

      Thanks Rogue! Yeah totally. It seems like the last thing we want… and yet it’s the very thing we want (to avoid, anyway). I guess it’s the true test of success – if you’re still alive, you must be winning! But if you can’t die… then you can’t lose, and it’s hard to really believe you’re succeeding. Weird, eh?

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