I do not enjoy killing player characters. I have a lot of NPCs get killed, as you probably know if you listen to the podcasts. Player Character deaths are a lot trickier to manage. They are easy to do, sure. But they are very hard to make meaningful and even harder to get the players to celebrate.
In my experience, the only way to kill a PC and not lose a player over it is to make sure no one thinks it is your fault the PC died. Get them to believe that the game just worked out that way, that the dice roll was bad, or that someone in the group made a bad choice that led to their death. Of course, as the GM you really are the one that set them up to die, but so long as they don’t know it you can get away with it.
Here are a few tricks I’ve used over the years to get away with PC Murder. They do not all work for every occasion, but hopefully you can find something that will work for your campaign or at least inspire you to think.
Just like real people, PCs have goals and dreams. Specifically, they all have principals that they are willing to die for. Some will sacrifice themselves to save a fellow PC or a beloved NPC. Some will die to take down a hated foe. And some will die for the greater good.
As a GM, you already use your character’s motivations to hook them into adventures and test them with choices to drive the story. This is just taking that one step further to see how they are willing to end their story. Be sure to test this motivation in a session before you want to kill off this PC so as to cement this way of thinking into the player and their character.
Once you have locked in on the PC’s death hook, plan out the death with the bait and lock them in. Be sure to make it look like you are giving them a choice and are letting them choose to sacrifice themselves for their goal. Whatever they are dying for, make SURE they achieve, or it won’t be a heroic sacrifice and they will probably hate you. You can always burn down the village next year.
All Is Fair
Killing a player character with a monster or trap is always a very real possibility, and is really very easy to do. After all, you have control over all the difficulties and challenge ratings and what-not. And if your player falls into a pit of instant death, they are likely to remember that you are in control and thus blame you for the death of their character that fell into the pit.
But players like to be challenged, and if you can balance that excitement with escalating tension then eventually they will forget that you are in control and instead come to see the dangers of the world as real and say, “That’s just how this world works.”
Mwa ha ha!
Now this tough-but-fair gameplay style really is very fragile, and you REALLY have to stick to it in order to pull it off. Never fudge the rules, always reward the players when they pull off something spectacular, and frequently give them a chance to retreat or avoid trouble so they don’t feel penned down. Also, escalate the encounters as 2 steps forward and one step back (or 3 to one if you are running a fast paced game).
Of course the encounters will keep getting harder until someone dies, but now that is not your fault. And the player characters that live will encourage the player with the dead PC to make a new character for you to kill.
Pin the Tail on the PC
Player characters interact with each other a lot, and sometimes it is hard for them to remember that they are on the same team. Players often see things differently, overcome different problems, just like their characters. It is a great way to make a strong team. And you can use it against them, too!
Any time the group makes an important decision, there is always a nagging thought in the back of many PC’s minds that a different option might have been better (or at least safer). So once the players have a discussion where both sided speak up at least twice before coming to a conclusion (it does not have to be heated), you drop your death trap on them and kill one of them.
Be sure to feign innocence throughout this encounter that is killing a PC. Even apologize. “I’m sorry. I did not think you would really choose this path,” is a great lie. It does not matter which side the dying PC was on in the choice. Everyone will assume it is a player’s fault.
The trick here is to keep the blame on one or more PC without actually splitting the party over it. To this end, be sure to play up that it was the character’s choice and NOT the player. Encourage the group for their roleplaying, and be sure to emphasize how much you are going to miss the dead character.
Character deaths should be few and far between, at least as far as intentional ones. If you become a serial PC killer, players are eventually going to catch on or at least stop playing with you. If you want to kill EVERYONE, be sure you have a less-violent back up game that you can sell the group on for the next session.
That being said, I use these tricks all the time but rarely for TPKs. Mostly, I use them to steer my groups to dramatic consequences without making them feel like they are being railroaded. Tough challenges, heroic sacrifices, and conflicting emotions are wonderful tools for directing a great story.
I’d also like to point out that while this article may seem a bit dark, most of it was written with a dry and slightly sarcastic sense of humor. I’m really a nice guy, and honestly I’ve had more players willfully kill themselves than I’ve killed on purpose or by accident. Just ask them, and they’ll tell you.
Would I lie?