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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker.
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? How lethal are your games and
why? How do you handle PC death if and when it happens?
Over the years, my games have grown a reputation of being deadly, grim, and taking place in be-shitten worlds. And for the most part, I'm inclined to agree with this.
I'll just go back as far as mid-way through undergrad, so about 7 years ago. I was running an episodic Iron Kingdoms game where the players were undergoing a perilous quest to save the world from some existential threat. The catch being that they all had to sacrifice themselves in order to truly imprison the horror for another long period of time. The campaign wasn't deadly but instead created a very dark and grim attitude where death was inevitable. I consider that campaign my first major foray into my current style.
Subsequent campaigns have slowly ratcheted up the deadliness. I remember that I started almost gleefully killing PCs in my RAW tactical minis/rogue-like Fantasy Craft game, Myths and Legends: the story of the Pimps at Sea. It was a really glorious campaign, where player death created the roleplaying tensions mid-combat. The players were heroes fighting against almost impossible odds in order to shape the world to their liking. They raised armies, united the races in a region under a single confederacy, became pirate kings, and invaded and conquered another sovereign state with an army of brass automatons, pirates, and orcs!
One of the many ridiculous battles from Myths and Legends: the story of the Pimps at Sea
Effectively, the true possibility of death made the players always feel like they were earning their victories. This worked particularity well in a system like Fantasy Craft because it is rules heavy with an emphasis on multiple kinds of damage and resistances interacting together with the PC's large set of abilities. I don't really play this style of rules system any more, but I would really enjoy bringing this larger than life experience back to the table. Possibly with Barbarians of Lemuria/Heroes of Hellas.
Another over the top battle up the steps of the enemy capital (Myths and Legends).
Henchmen are my secret for increasing the lethality of the campaign without ever killing the PCs. I like to make up weird and silly henchmen, give them personalities, make them fun for the players to interact with. Then I kill the henchmen. Brutally and mercilessly . And I describe it. This way death is always real and lurking around the corner. No PC may actually need to die, but beings they knew and cared about did and they felt it. One of the best examples recently was in Planeatary Express when I killed the PCs' employer Balial. I was hearing grief about it from my players for weeks! It was awesome.
In terms of dealing with actual character death in a game, I like to make sure there is an "in world" plausible reason for adventures/scoundrels/couriers/etc. to exist. I attribute a lot of the success of my Planeatary Express campaign to that. The PCs had jobs that required that they were adventurers.
Similarity, one of my most lethal campaigns Dungeonship the premise was that the players were all people traveling to a new colony across the sea in order to strike it rich/escape something/see the new land. New adventurers were constantly arriving from the home country and the main town was set up with an Adventurer's Guild and all the basic adventuring needs. This helped with introducing new PCs on the fly. For example, the new character might already be in the dungeon or is new in the tavern 'cause they just arrived off the boat. This also meant that it was really easy to hire henchmen.
Here's a list of other blogs in the GM Round table