Don't Hurt the Player Characters...

...hurt their friends!

It's time for an RPG articles, and if I go into my suggestion box (filled by readers like YOU - use the Comments section), I pull... "Collateral Damage" as suggested by Anonymous! It just so happens it is my favoured means of hurting player characters. Everybody recovers from damage, but can they recover from collateral damage?

See, I'm one of those narrativist GMs that likes to keep the PCs alive until it is dramatically satisfying for them to die. I treat all my games like episodic TV shows or serial comics, and it wouldn't do to kill a character off on unlucky rolls, or in the middle of adventures, in shit-ass combats with grunts or when the odds are less than epic. No, I want their deaths to MEAN SOMETHING. I want it some meaningful, the player goes into it WILLINGLY.

But where's the suspense in that?

In collateral damage, that's where. I'm unwilling to kill off a PC willy-nilly, but her clumsy boyfriend? Sure! Blow up the warrior's stronghold? Anytime! Have the Kingpin erase the superhero's credit margin? Oh yeah! Even ye olde innocent bystander will do the trick in a pinch. Oh the guilt! And demotions and loss of privileges are always a nice consequences for failure. You won't die, but I can't guarantee you won't get nerfed!

The beauty with making a character miserable is that it creates drama, it doesn't take drama away. A guy can't very well suffer if he's dead. A character that fails in the above examples might struggle with guilt, public scorn or an employer's ire. Or maybe he has to deal with the loss of a loved one (who's finished their own arc, naturally), rebuild their headquarters anew, or change their status quo from millionaire playboy to grungy public defender. In fact, those endings should be new beginnings.

And after the ups and downs, when the world is really at stake, in that big climax, then the character's life is up for grabs. And if she loses it, then I hope it was enough to save us all. And that, as they say, is EPIC.

Who's with me?


CalvinPitt said...

I'm with you. I've only played in one campaign, and in it, our party had apparently riled a demon to the point he took all the people each of us cared about and made them into flesh golems, then he flew off. I decided I should my character wouldn't take that well, and started being less friendly to the party any time they suggested a plan that didn't involve going after the demon. I had planned, when we ran into him again, to have my character just go nuts and starting attacking, damn the consequences, but the semester ended, everyone scattered (or gradated) and we never finished.

Still, I think taking out a few people around the players can definitely be effective.

Jeremy Patrick said...

Sorry, I gotta go the complete opposite here. Players need to feel like any "average" combat could be the last one for their character, or combat loses much of its excitement--if they know you won't let anything happen to them unless it's "narratively appropriate", then they know their place in the story is determined by you and not their own actions. In other words, they should never take anything for granted and I always roll dice where they can see it so they know I won't "fudge" anything. As for killing off friends and allies, this is okay once in a while but very quickly the players will be loathe to form attachments because they know you'll be quick to seize on them as weaknesses. As for innocent bystanders, my players must just be more callous than yours because it doesn't give them any sleepless nights when collateral damage occurs--heck, they're responsible for it half the time :)

Tom said...

I agree with Jeremy. Most player's are smart enough to know when they are being "helped", they need to know that the story isn't pre-written and anything can happen, including death.

Siskoid said...

Calvin: One of the nice benefits of strong attachments is exactly what you're talking about - the ability to complete the picture yourself if the campaign collapses.

Jeremy and Tom: Oh you wacky simulationists ;). For my part, if the players don't feel any attachments to NPCs in their lives, I'm doing something wrong. Well planned combat designed to create opposition and the chance to develop the characters' (and players') skills but not be lethal is not the same as "being helped". It's just not that kind of encounter.

In my own experience, characters dying early in a scenario, especially against mooks or from, I dunno, drowning, are always met with extreme disappointment. Heroic deaths are spoken of proudly often years later. I think this may have something to do with the level of investment I require from players in the character design phase. The emphasis is always on character story, rather than stats and abilities, which makes a new character not so easy to "roll up".

That's where collateral damage comes in. If the players care about their character's STORY, then components of that story are important, and putting their loved ones and material assets in danger is just as good as putting the character's life in danger. And note that I'm saying "in danger". If they succeed, they get to keep the asset. If they don't, the character lives on, but must cope with the consequences to the "bible" they wrote for the character.

Pout said...

I'd take having my girlfriend in the hospital over a mistake I made over dying myself anyday! game I mean...


The way I see it, players are being railroad either way, wether it be by the GM actually caring for the story, or wether it be by the luck of the dice. I much prefer being railroaded by the former.

Their is more than one way to make players feel anxious about what is going to happen then showing them their opponent has similar stats as them.

Siskoid said...

True, I do a lot with paranoia. It's just my style.

Nizbel said...

I did enjoy our DM killing off an annoying character, just to reply "Now make another character that's less annoying and less idiotic."

He ended up dying again anyways, now that I think about it the characters might not of been the reason he killed him off...

Siskoid said...

See, that would never (rarely?) happen in my campaigns, because I'm involved in chargen with the player. Nobody makes a character that will turn out to be a Negative Play Experience for others on MY shift.


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