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Gaming - In General
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December 14, 2005, 12:01 am

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Cheka Man

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PC Death and the Threshold of Acceptance


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.

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.

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Comments ( 13 )
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December 13, 2005, 23:54
I suppose that, as a player, I'm fine up to 4.
However, when I GM, I usually GM in such a way as to be a 1.5-2.
December 13, 2005, 23:55
I have played in a level four game.... Only the challenges we faced where often designed for the entire group of seven players being a heavy challenge.

You can imagine what happens if in a situation like that some players do not show. (Usualy in such a group at least one of the players does not show if you play every week like we did.)

PC death was rather frequent. We once got nearly wipped of the floor when we met a fairly terrible monster. Everybody blamed me for running of, but in the end, it was I who had to feed everybody some potions to revive them, as the rest of the party was knocked down. (none of them lethal, which surprised us in the end.)

Then at the end of the session the GM cassualy tells you that the only reasonable course of action was to run away, as we could have handled the monster if we had been like double level or the group had been twentyone people.

I think I GM somewhere between level two and three. After all, if a player does a realy stupid thing... he/she dies.
If you single handedly want to kill a brown bear.... you stand the change that the brown bear will want to "dance" with you....
December 13, 2005, 23:55
Awesome assessment which seems to cover all the circumstances I can currently think of.

I am a pretty solid 3 unless it entirely changes what I am trying to do. I won't ruin something just because one player is stupid. I allow some OOC discussion and try and get things back to where the group wants to be and not the idiotic individual.

3-B will kill them but not permanent. Will put them under but only as far as the game allows them to recover. Those are fun and should be used, but not to the detriment of the game or the character. The randomness is enjoyable.

I guess I am more of a 2 with a firm control of the rest of the circumstances I suppose so I don't think I am a pure anything really. The story is what drives and if things happen, they happen, but I don't like killing anybody permanently, just for a bit until the rest can get him back.
December 13, 2005, 23:56
The course is to threaten the players, not kill them outright (I see no point in THAT)
anyway - I am pretty lenient with the players, say, about (2), as they would get cocky otherwise, and they know stupidity can be dangerous, perhaps not kill you, but be unpleasant...
someimes I think they SHOULD get what they deserve though - up and including walking up to them, ripping up character sheet and shouting "Dead! YOU'RE SO DEAD!"
December 13, 2005, 23:56
In any case, my death tolerance changes considerably based on the setting and campaign. We are currently playing a superhero game in which the characters will probably never die, but they certainly cannot "easily succeed against the challenges thrown against them." In the case of my game, I just wrote death out of the rules. When you reach 0 hit points, you are defeated and your fate is left up in the air. Usually, it means you are knocked unconscious, but it could mean that your secret base is falling in around you and you are engulfed in an explosion never to be seen again... until issue 42.

On the other hand, in most of my Runebearer games are pretty a pretty solid 4.2. I tell my players that no dice will be fudged and that there are things they might meet in the course of the game that are more powerful than they are. Essentially, the assumptions that player characters won't die, or that they will never face anything they cannot defeat in straight on combat are tossed out the window.

I tried this as an experiment a couple years back, thinking that no one would like it. I was wrong. My players took to it immediately. Suddenly, every combat was dangerous. I found that my players became a little more thoughtful and careful. Most importantly, they seemed to be having more fun and getting more excitement out of fights.

Overall, this is a very interesting and pretty accurate scale.
Barbarian Horde
December 14, 2005, 4:17
"I have found there are about nine degrees of threshold in the gaming community."

But there are six named. Update, perhaps?
Voted Dragon Lord
December 14, 2005, 9:37
Nice analysis Moon - pretty much what I've come to expect from you

As a GM I tend to run somewhere between 2 and 3, but as a player I'm happy up to about 4

I note nobody has rated this - strange since it really deserves some recognition

To set things off I'll give it a 4
Voted Kinslayer
May 1, 2006, 1:20
GM: "The thief, Black Leaf, did not find the poison trap, and I declare her dead."

Marcie: "NO, NOT BLACK LEAF! NO, NO! I’M GOING TO DIE! Don’t make me quit the game. Please don’t! Somebody save me! You can’t do this!"

Debbie: "Marcie, get out of here. YOU’RE DEAD! You don’t exist any more."
Voted Murometz
January 19, 2007, 22:11
required reading for all RP'ers in Forum :D
Voted dark_dragon
January 13, 2008, 8:26
Nice post moon, very well put. I ditto Muro

Pointed to it after some of our characters died. I'm of the opinion that there are only two reasons a character should die:
1. Player stupidity (the character's player, not other players)
2. Heroic sacrifice (up to the players)

Both as a GM, _and_ as a player.

In general, every dice roll should be thought out. There should be both a positive AND a negative outcome, but those should be cool and dramatic for everybody. If you don't have a cool and dramatic outcome after every dice rolls, (success, failure and the various degree your system allows) you shouldn't roll.

In term of tactical situation, I'm with Strolen. Make them _feel_ the pain, with consequences, injury, etc... but don't kill them outright.

In effect, what I'm saying is that the GM has the responsibility for metagaming and keeping the game dramatic and cool, for both players and GM, and shouldn't kill the a player's characters unless the character a)deserves it because of stupidity (in which case the player will mostly agree) b)has acted in a way that would bring death on themselves (in which case the player will mostly agree)

Players start to complain when they die and feel they were helpless and powerless. Your players should never, never ever feel helpless and powerless in a situation. Otherwise, they're not playing the game. You're playing them.

(On exception: horror, where feeling helpless is the entire point.)
January 6, 2009, 16:55
Bump. Great little article.
Voted Jordan_Grey
February 26, 2011, 19:16

As a GM or player, I'm a 4.5. I never shy away from kicking my PC's in the teeth. Though it really does happen rarely.


An excellent post. Concise and well worded.

Voted valadaar
March 21, 2017, 11:30
This is a good one. It seems to cover the continuum quite well. I'd say I am generally a 2.5 as well.

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