“Edge of the World,” Session #7: PC Death
So as a contrast to last week’s bad session, this week we had some good old stormin’ the trade guild fun, but the really memorable part of this week was a character death scene, so that’s what I’ll focus on. (Read about the rest of the campaign here.)
First, some tips for PC death scenes
- Plan it. I don’t run games where PCs can get dice-killed. That’s just my and my players’ preference. My rule of thumb is that character death should be premeditated by both the player and the GM. That can mean him giving you a meaningful face-cue seconds before throwing himself into danger, or having out-of-game discussions for weeks beforehand. Planning it ahead (as opposed to leaving it up to a die roll) helps you give give the death the drama it deserves, while still letting the player surprise you with exactly what he does (and, of course, still taking the group by surprise).
- Roleplay it to the max. When handled right, character death can be an intense (does it sound odd to say intimate?) moment between player and GM. Player and GM are both at the height of what they bring to the table; the player is bringing his best, his final, performance for this character, and you should be bringing your best, your most dramatic, situation. If you’re doing it right, you’re building something very emotional together; no other moment in roleplay is quite like it. Give the PC a climactic situation to die in. Describe the circumstances so that what he’s accomplishing and why he had to accomplish it are clear in everyone’s minds; players will always forget details, but you don’t want them to forget this.
- Make sure the death fits the genre. In some genres (horror) PCs die all the time. In some others (Swashbuckling, usually) death is less expected. To keep deaths meaningful, make sure they fit the genre in how often they happen, and in what they look like. We’re playing a save-the-world sequel to a swashbuckling campaign, where the stakes are higher than the original – that makes death more appropriate than in a lighthearted swashbuckling game. Note that this whole campaign was kicked off by the death of one of the original PCs) For more, see what Gnome Stew has to say about this idea.
Drama Technique: Changing the way a device works for the sake of the characters
Since his happened to be the player’s last week in town, the player and I planned for Savio to die this session. We both wanted it to be sacrificial and outrageous. The situation I prepared was: the now-defeated cultists would set their portal to blow before slitting their own throats. The solution I prepared was: the party wizard would realize his counterspell had to be read continuously to even reduce the size of the explosion – meaning someone would have to remain within the blast radius (a bit of a “GM kill,” but one of the times it’s definitely OK is when a player has asked for a dramatic exit).
- Savio’s in-character actions led to a different, even more dramatic solution, so I had to change the way that portals work in order to accommodate his solution. The process of doing this warrants a lengthy write up, so bear with me…
- The portal is set to collapse. I explain (because the party wizard would know this) that portals work by bending or puckering space. In order to see or travel across miles of normal space (or, in this case, across dimensions), the bend is necessarily extreme. If a portal is collapsed without certain precautions, the resulting rebound/equalization is enough to tear a whole island apart. That’s the situation they now face.
- They examine the portal and I tell them they can sense (even without knowing the ritual for communing with it) a malevolent presence on the other side, watching their puny efforts with perverse amusement.
- Savio starts bashing the portal surface with a blunt object, obviously with the intent to break through and confront the thing. I had defined it as a scry portal, so normally whaling on it wouldn’t do anything. But since this scene was about him, and since his approach was completely in character, I quickly decided that physical damage should have an effect after all. I redefine the physical nature of the portal in my own mind and rule that he’s able to make a small crack.
- The party does a bunch of damage and I rule that a big crack tears open, sucking a number of pieces inward as a powerful cyclone of air begins to pour through to the other side.
- Wizard Sylvienne casts a beam of holy light into the hole to see what will happen. Now since Savio’s obviously intent on the approach of “go through and attack the thing.” According to my standing explanation of How Portals Work, that wouldn’t really do anything to stop the explosion. So I mentally redefine How Portals Work. The result of Sylvienne’s action: the evil presence draws back in revulsion – startled, angered. I tell Sylvienne that the magical “pressure” against the other side of the portal (not, like, air pressure, obviously – but just whatever force is exerted when an evil spirit “presses” against something. Admittedly I was BSing, but if the players noticed they didn’t mind – it all served the purpose of the drama that they were caught up in) is greatly reduced. It might even reduce the size of the explosion a little, but not enough. (see how I’m working the character’s approach back to my original dramatic purpose?)
- This is Savio’s cue. He tells Sylvienne to focus that holy light into his sword (a bit of a redefinition of the way the spell works, but we're all in it for the drama in our group) – he’s going in. The party is surprised, tries to stop him in-character, he makes a cool speech about fate and friendship and sacrifice, and pushes in. I rule that he can feel the evil withdrawing before the holy light (and also before the fearlessness of a good man), and that Sylvienne senses the pressure against the portal reduce even further – it will probably only take out the building. The party skedaddles.
This scene was not about How To Stop A Portal Collapse – though that might be an interesting puzzle in itself, another time. It was about Savio doing something awesome. And the players were caught up enough in that story that they didn’t care (and may not have noticed). The genie method is NOT about making the PCs’ plans always work, but it is about always turning the PCs’ actions into forward story motion. And in this case, forward motion meant an awesome, meaningful death that accomplished something.