One of the most heated topics in gaming is the arguments about player character death. Should the GM and the Players be antagonistic with each other? Should the results lay like the dice? What about story continuity and the investment in time and effort into the characters. Everyone seems to have strong opinions about this.
After hearing years of this debate, I came to a conclusion. GMs/ Players are not complaining about character death so much as they are arguing about the “threshold” of player character death and the reasons why the character died. What I mean by threshold is the criteria or more simply what conditions must be met before player death is appropriate in a given campaign. Every GM and player seems to have a different opinions about the subject. It is only when the entire group has the same or similar thresholds that the game troupe “works” and plays well.
I have found there are about nine degrees of threshold in the gaming community.
First: Character Driven Game/ Story
For many of us, characters have “script immunity” or are basically unkillable. Most of the time, the players can easily succeed against the challanges thrown against them. Even if they screw up, the GM will scramble around and try to save them.
Second: Story Driven Game/ Story
Threshold is script immunity with exceptions. For many of us, characters must be “written out”. A character’s script immunity is revoked for the purpose of brining in a new character, that is “cool”. There are times, we note that script immunity is off, letting the players know that in the climax… people can die.
Third: Game- Player Stupidity
The threshold is “Player stupidity”. This is a totally subjective situation for the GM. Sometimes, despite your best warning or advice, players pursue a course that is effectively suicidal. Thus they die if the dice determine it, but the GM does not actively punish them.
Third-B: Game- Critical Wierdness
Critial wierdness means the PCs only die under crits or their own fumbles. These normally occur Rare enough to keep PCs to keep them alive, but often enough to keep people on their toes, only punctuating the game with death.
Fourth: Game - Tactical Situations
The threshold is tactical interaction, combat situations or rule intesive moments. Once the dice and game mechanics start flying, the character’s life is upto the dice and their decisions. This means there will be no suprise/ sudden deaths, nor will characters be “removed” by social means. But once the combat begins, all bets are off. Most challanges should be equal to the PCs, but most should be less, to ensure the continued survival of the players.
Fourth-B: Game - Semi-tactical
This is an expansion of the tactical situation to any time that could be using tactical rules (in most games), but are normally played out in up-time. This would include, and not be limited to, traps, puzzles, climbing, going through hazardous areas.
Fourth-C: Computer Game
At this point the GM is simply the interpretor of data they created. The GM might as well be a computer, as they are painfully fairly presenting the information and letting the dice fall where they may.
Fifth- Game - The Duel
Some people like the challange of competition: the PCs and GM are adversaries. It is all about decisions and dice. It is a game in the classic sense, there will be a winner or a loser, GM or player. Characters die with regular frequency, as both sides have a duel of wits and dice for tactical advantages. The Threshold is normally tactical interaction, but the situation at the table is more like HackMaster (Knights of the Dinner Table) with the two sides are gaainst each other.
Sixth- Story - Mine
PCs are fodder for your godlike might. The Threshold is stepping into the situation. Munchkin GMs at their worst, or the occasional GM with self image issues fall into this category.
This forms a continumn from 1 to 6. Everyone is pretty much somewhere inbetween the death threshold 1 to 6. Every level, except the most extreme rank 1s, allow for PC injury and abuse. (It is fair game to knock um down to “mostly hurt”).
What I think is happening here is that we gamers are not agreeing upon what is an acceptable threshold for PC death. Each of us have our own take.
For examples. I am a 2.5 . PCs mostly have plot immunity, except at key times (climax of story arcs… they usually know when the kid gloves are off, then any of the threes become an option, especially when they do something sooo stupid that I can not conviently save them (from themselves).
When you are getting into one of these arguments, or someone rattles on, find out about their threshold, and what they think is acceptable. This way you will not be arguing apples and cumquats.