Non-player characters (NPCs) populate Gamesmasters’ game worlds providing a life source alongside the vitality injected by the player characters (PCs). Unlike PCs, however NPCs do not need to be complete characters. The level of completeness of an NPC is directly related to their level of intended interaction with the players. And to a lesser extent their role in the campaign or in a given scenario.
Those constructed to have some individuality identifiable by the players and even a modicum of believability can make the difference between a bland, artificial environment and a vibrant, exciting, living world. Applying layers of detail is a proven technique in NPC design that can payoff in spades during play.
The Five Layers
A believable NPC can be described as an interesting, engaging, and memorable character. This is in addition to the fact that they are likely to exist in the campaign world in the first place. To create a believable NPC the GM can employ five layers in their construction. These five layers are:
- Physical features
- Gear (clothing & equipment)
- Skillset (skills of note & combat style)
How Much Detail?
The first concern when constructing an NPC is the level of detail needed. This is preliminary and aside from a quick rundown of each of the five layers. Simply inserting a single generic item in each layer can quickly generate mooks (nameless fodder) or a background NPC. However, these will be suited only to limited contact with the PCs. The level of contact an NPC has with the PCs is important. This as you do not want to waste time adding minute detail to a character that shows up once, says next to nothing then has no other significant/repeating contact.
The Interaction Hierarchy
Game masters should have a basic hierarchy for their NPCs besides the main antagonist(s). These would be (in ascending order): background, foreground or limited interactors with limited appearances, those with limited interaction but the potential for multiple appearances, frequent interactors even if their appearances are limited, and those who interact regularly with the PCs.
The higher up you move along the NPC interactor hierarchy the more detail needed. NPCs can move up the hierarchy or become elevated by ongoing interactions even if not designed for long-term existence. These gaining added detail either acquired from play (shear improvisation) or details and minutiae added by the GM. Often this occurs as a response to player inquiries or in an effort to give the NPC extra story weight. After determining the interaction level of an NPC, the very next concern is Archetype.
Archetypes & Stereotypes
Archetypes, stereotypes, and tropes are useful tools in the hands of a talented GM. The latter pair are often considered cheap tricks (especially stereotypes). Stereotypes can if the GM is not careful or sufficiently creative, become cliché. And if the GM is not mindful, offensive. Archetypes carry the connotations of role, skillset, and ability. Stereotypes convey assumptions and preconceptions about behavior, motivating factors, and “genetic traits.”
Common stereotypes found in fantasy tabletop roleplaying include Evil-Murderous-Orcs, Suicide-Attack-Goblins, Bad-Guy-in-Black-Adorned-in-Batwings-and-Skulls, the Common-Thug, etc. These are trenchant and brief descriptions with an attached assumption.
An archetype on the other hand is a sort of blueprint. It is often built into or associated with various settings and works of fiction. It gathers together certain attributes. These presenting a general sketch of a character and possible patterns of behavior packaged together with general appearance. The archetype should be selected with the NPC’s role in mind. Stereotyping, on the other hand, is shallow shorthand communicating specific character traits to players. based on a large social/economic/regional/ethnic group. An especially useful tool when there is limited playtime, while in a pinch, or in a faster-paced part of the game.
Certain classic archetypes found in roleplaying include the Do-Gooder-Paladin, Prefers-the-Wilderness-Ranger, the Might-Makes-Right-Barbarian, and the Sticky-Handed-Backstabbing-Rogue among others.
Tropes, another tool in the box, allow the use of a shorthand statement to easily communicate certain aspects of NPCs. These can be as short as a name for a fantasy race or profession. Perhaps a short description not containing a value judgment or opinion in and of itself but carried by familiarity. GMs can use tropes to influence the players’ in-game actions dependent on their reactions. If the group groans at the mention of specific tropes, the GM probably shouldn’t use it. Unless, of course, trying to raise the ire of their players. This actually holds true for stereotypes as well.
Examples of common fantasy tropes include the Knight and variations on, the Archer, the Spell-Slinger, Half-Dragons, the Scholar, etc.
The second NPC layer, distinguishing physical features and build, begins to grant the archetypal NPC more individuality. Race, in roleplaying terms, is a way of communicating the most general physical features and behavioral patterns to the players simply by attaching a label to the NPC. Race is a combination of stat templates and stereotypes promoting a general idea, right or wrong, about personality and role. Again, a simple mook character does not need much more than that. Maybe some equipment. But a well-rounded NPC would need a few more visual cues to deliver some additional information to the players. This information can include a verbal exchange. This is good to use with a simple encounter as well to drive home the NPC’s intentions.
An NPC’s face is a roadmap of experience particularly if they have had an especially brutal life. Acquiring scars, tattoos (which can carry their own symbolic meaning) or losing teeth, eyes, noses, etc. adds character. Prototypical pigmentation that carries meaning in the game that the players can clue into, is also useful. Even a deep suntan and very visible tan-lines can reveal occupation before the GM names it. Alternately, regional racial features can distinguish an NPC from the racial norm. For example, a lighter shade of green or very tall points on the ears. These hinting at a different origin than the racial norm can communicate some ethnopolitical information expanding the game world. Physical disability can also add layers to the character. This due to birth defects, the mutilation of war wounds, or more specific instances of physical trauma; abuse, ritual mutilation/scarification, accidents, or draconian punishment.
Gear & Clothing
Costume and equipment, the next layer, can be used to express the character forthrightly. Alternately, it can hide their true nature or intentions, heighten the anxiety of players. Or it can feed them hints/clues as to the wider world, the NPC’s fighting ability, skillset. Or reveal otherwise unexpressed aspects of the NPC’s personality as well as connections to other individuals or organizations. Mooks and background NPCs need only the gear to carry out their brief and likely, temporary purpose with perhaps some token details.
NPCs should have an equipment list comparable to their interaction level. As well as a role and an appearance that distinguishes them more as individuals from the lesser interactors. The players should take one look and know that these are more than just nameless minions. Personal items should be on this list, which can give clues to their religious beliefs, sentimentalities, and pastimes. Their costume can also reveal that the face they are presenting to the players may be a façade. Details such as neatness, quality, and the relevance of clothing style or equipment used to hide their true nature.
Here, certain visual tools, particularly heraldry, are very useful. An NPC warrior with a family crest or striking heraldic image across their chest is set apart from the crowd.
Another very important point when building an NPC is what skills they have at their disposal; their skillset, not necessarily their whole skill-list just the ones they are likely to use in-game. This including their combat ability and fighting style. They should have the tools required to make use of these skills and implements cogent to their combat style. Variation in combat style can demonstrate personality during a fight even without any verbal communication.
NPCs can also have customized gear identifying the piece as their personal property. Also, keep in mind the symbolic significance that the weaponry you equip your NPCs with can convey. For example, a spiked club indicating a real brute and probably a powerhouse.
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Your player group has just slaughtered an entire village for the hell of it, they kill every other NPC that has any words with them, and they loot every corpse. In fact, loot is just one excuse they use to participate in the slaughter of unfortunate NPCs. What you have on your hands is every GM’s nightmare, a gaggle of Murder Hoboes.
The problem of murder hoboing is as old as fantasy roleplaying games themselves. A problem best dealt with directly in-game though out-of-game preparation can help to mitigate its appearance. The term itself comes from the commonality that most adventurers are essentially homeless wanderers looking for wealth and power through fighting enemies, participating in expeditions, and general adventuring.
Murder hoboing is a problem because it can derail an adventure by killing off of important NPCs thereby disposing of any important information they were to relay to the PCs, cause utter chaos in game rendering all the prep work a GM has done fruitless, and may squelch the fun of those actually trying to engage the game world. Ultimately it rests with the GM to work with the offender to get things back on pace. However, direct confrontation might not be the best or effective way to go about things instead attempts from within the game should be tried first to gently coerce the Player through their character. Every group has had a player that has done this and often groups do go through these types of phases early in their existence.
However, not all adventurers are Murder Hoboes though the majority seem to be itinerant by their very nature. A Murder Hobo is essentially an adventurer that simply goes around killing everything in their path in order to reap experience points (XP) or to loot the corpses of their victims. They often do not discriminate between villains, allies, monsters, animals, innocents, and criminals. If it exists within the game, worth is broken down into loot or XP.
On the other hand, Murder Hoboing is the behavior manifesting from the previously mentioned outlook by a Player using their Player Character (PC). A player may hold this simplistic view due to boredom, a long lull or inactivity in the game, or lack of immersion leading to said boredom. This can also come from playing a character that has been built solely for combat and nothing more in a game that consists of little or no combat or has long stretches between the actual fighting and the other RPG elements.
There are three major strategies or courses of action that can be used to mitigate murder hoboing that do not directly target the Player. The first called the Session Zero approach strives to construct a set of rules and understanding that will set up the boundaries for Players and the GM. This is a preemptive strategy.
The second strategy is to require a Backstory from each Player for their character in an effort to invest the Player in the fate of their character. Hopefully inspiring them to not misuse them to derail the game. The last approach is to Bait the offender and essentially use the potential fate of their character to send a warning to them that their attempt at having fun stomping all over everybody else’s’ will only end in frustration for them. This is still an indirect approach but is very close to being directed at the player him or herself and if misused that is exactly what it will feel like to them, so use this last approach with caution.
Session Zero is the pregame where the group gathers to generate characters and where the general rules and expectations of the group can be discussed establishing a general code of Player behavior. The GM can give their input in character builds so that players can create characters that can participate in as much of the play as possible thereby avoiding the boredom and over-specialization that can lead to the adoption of the murder hobo mindset. Typically, a Session Zero is a meet up to generate characters and discuss table manners before the next actual play-session. This preliminary session also gives the players a chance to come up with and write backstories for their characters.
Players that have worked on a backstory will have more invested in their characters. Thus, they are less apt to go on uncharacteristic killing sprees or randomly murder NPCs. Granted that their character is not actually a homicidal maniac. A backstory also allows a GM to integrate a character into the game world and even into the main thrust of a campaign by linking elements in their backgrounds with adventure and campaign elements. This also gives the GM ammo when a PC does go berserk and needs to be reined in allowing for in-game story options to do that if only as a distraction.
This brings us to baiting. This strategy involves using a situation or NPC that appeals to the worst nature of the Player(s) in order to lure them into a confrontation. The bait of course is much more than can be seen, they are characters designed to prey on the weaknesses of the offender(s) as well as defend against their strengths. Either this forces the offender’s compatriots to join them or back away during the fight. If they survive that encounter then bait them again to send a warning shot across their bow in order to let them know they may not be able to tell a bait-NPC from the average NPC.
Whereas the previous strategies do not directly target the offending player(s), remember the bait tactic means the player(s) has to take it, there are effective strategies that do. These techniques directly oppose the PCs in game and if over-used may cause players to resent the GM. They may come to believe the GM is laying tracks (as in railroading) or just deliberately beating up on their characters, so try not to over-use these techniques. I suggest that these strategies should be utilized when the characters start exhibiting or carrying out murder-hobo behaviors. These tactics are the Boss Strategy, making use of diegetic Power Structures, and deploying an Avenger.
A one time-tested strategy to handle murder hoboing has been to insert increasingly powerful NPC’s (paladins are common) to act as adjudicators and avengers essentially using the Video-Game Boss Strategy. A boss in this context is an NPC that functions as a roadblock to the endeavors of the players. Sometimes they can also function as a landmark, especially as an indicator of player power level. An example is an NPC showing up early in the PC’s career that beats the hell out of them and gets away.
Eventually the PC’s catch up to this NPC and are able to defeat them in a later confrontation allowing players to demonstrate not only their characters’ increased powers and abilities but also (hopefully) their better teamwork and maybe ability at planning and strategy. Bosses are ideally effective combatants up to the point of defeating the players, that is they are hard to defeat but are not overwhelmingly or impossible to knock down.
The Boss strategy can keep the murder-hobo(es) on their toes focusing their attention. It also has entertainment value so eliminating murder hoboing due to boredom. The Boss should inspire the PCs to track them down where NPCs with information become important to that goal. A murder hobo would lose the ability to get their claws into the Boss by not sparing the “throw-away” NPCs.
A better strategy, one that increases the depth of the setting, is to impose a socio-political hierarchy (feudalism etc.) that is defined and useable in game with the NPCs holding these positions not having to be super-charged or even particularly unique. The structure will ensure that even the players eliminate those in charge there is always a replacement and all the powers above them will see the players as threats to their persons as well. Thereby hiring and sending out the boss-types not only reinforced with the authority to deal with them but with back-up coming from all angles which includes ordinary citizens as informants or even poisoners or entrappers. These people who not only believe in the system which can by themselves be enough but those who also have stakes built into the system or at least those who believe they do are very dangerous.
Overarching structures are more effective being very big and complex such as the Feudalist Hierarchy, which is basic but can be complex very quick as can succession to any of its offices. Smaller self-governing structures such as Guilds are more common but are also attached in some way to the overarching political structure by agreements, contracts, laws, and money. Meaning certain parts of the system will awaken to protect the whole as well as those parts that will see the murder-hoboes as their answer to political expediency and try to use them as such. This method can turn murder-hoboes into true role-players very quickly especially if they care anything about their characters. If the PCs still randomly murder the NPCs then an avenger may be called for.
An Avenger or Nemesis type NPC has the power and resources to hunt down and be a definite threat against the offending PCs. This type of NPC will definitely try to get them alone in a duel-like situation and will have no mercy convinced that they are the good guy and may very well be in this situation. It should be obvious to the Players that this character is too powerful to confront directly and there should be clues dropped in the game to demonstrate this and clue the Players in. There should also be in-game moments when the PCs know a superior enemy is stalking them. This helps to focus the murder-hobo(es) on something other than murder hoboing.
Murder Hoboing can drag a game down into pure boredom with the GM paralyzed due to a vital tool being broken. The ability to put clues and raw information into the mouths of NPCS is extremely important to running a game. It also boils roleplaying games down to simple number crunching as murder hoboing often involves greed for XP but this is not always applicable. However, there a ways to mitigate and fight this lazy approach to RPGs that some players have or may fall into.
The more passive and preventative approaches are running a preliminary session (Session Zero), require character backstories from each player, and do not be afraid to bait troublesome player characters. These should be attempted before the more direct methods are used. The more direct methods to combating murder-hoboes are employ increasingly powerful NPCs as adjudicators, make use of in-game power and political structures, and sending out avenger or nemesis type NPCs directly at the PCs. Note that the GM should never overuse these direct tactics as players may take it as direct attacks on them by the GM, so use sparingly.
Of course, if all else fails maybe it’s time to let go of the troublesome player or try to adjust to the group’s method of play if it is the entire group and a new one is not an option. Maybe such a group is better at being the villains.
The young mages had split their take from the Under-City Vaults and looked to hide the undivided booty someplace in the cabal room. After thoroughly searching the chamber Gornix (played by Gil) was able to find a small alcove behind a false brick in the hearth. They stashed a bag of gems (3 diamonds, 3 sapphires, 2 jade pieces, 1 emerald, and 3 moonstones) there along with some dragon’s teeth and the lotus seeds.
While they had done this they failed to notice that the amazon Athfonia (played by Perla) had slipped away just after they split the talons. The Ferenoi had absconded with her fair share of the gems and currency so the young mages simply shrugged her absence off.
Concerning the gear, Excor (played by Cris) took the Platinum Key encrusted with diamonds (Level 12, Knock 3/day used by inserting and turning the key, Passdoor 1/day used by tapping the key on the door), 1 healing potion, and the Jet Amulet (Level 5, Shield at will 1/day). The Jet Amulet won in a roll-off between Cris and Jenn.
Fauna (played by Jenn) took the polished bronze dagger with the carved jade grip (Level 8, +2 magic modifier, +4 to Luck level while being wielded), the mantrap seeds, the mandrake root, 1 Neutralize Poison Potion, and 1 Heal All Potion.
Gornix took the Electrum Ring with black enameled runes (Level 20, Call Nature’s Ally [Eagle] 2/day) and a Heal All Potion. Excor put the heavy bronze spiked mace under his chair as nobody wanted to actually continue carrying the weapon around.
Szoosha (played by Isis) took possession of the ruby-studded Copper Bracers inlaid with silver (Level 16, Armor Bane at will 1/day, +2 magic modifier to hand strikes and to bracer parry), 1 Neutralize Poison Potion, and 1 Claws of the Beast Potion.
Equipped with their new gear and their purses fattened with their shares of the loot the young mages decided to accompany Gornix to his apartment since he was still carrying the Amber Bee. It was still night though the wee hours. Black storm clouds filled the sky.
As the small group of mages walked through the city streets the lighting flashed and thunder cracked across the sky. They were about half-way to Gornix’s apartment when Fauna spotted the dark outlines of four winged imps following them.
Fauna: “Guys! We have company!”
Excor pulled his Copper Spike and shot a lightning bolt at the lead red imp barely scratching it. The third imp flew up to Gornix to smash its tiny split-hooves into his face as lightning flashed the sky. Fortunately he parried. The first imp exhaled a cone of fire catching both Fauna and Szoosha in the area of effect. Fauna lucked out and took no damage (Natural 20) but Szoo was badly burned and stunned by the blast (forced a Recovery roll so he didn’t die).
The second red imp did the same catching Szoo and Excor in its fiery breath. Szoo dropped into unconsciousness from the burns. Excor lucked out and took no damage (Natural 20’d it as well). Fauna forced her Heal All potion down the Naga’s throat. The fourth imp blasted its fire breath at the young mages singing them all. Gornix whacked imp number three with his staff but dealt no damage.
The first imp kicked Excor in the head drawing some blood. The second imp kicked Fauna in the face whom walked right into the blow while trying to avoid (she rolled a Natural 1). Fauna was stunned and bleeding from the monster’s nasty hooves, she was forced into a Recovery roll to stay on her feet. As Szoo got up imp number four kicked him in the face with a critical blow (N20) horribly injuring the black-scaled naga. Gornix unleashed Chrono-Missile at number three, twice, significantly wounding the small demon.
Imp number one burst into flames (it’s Blazing Aura [fire] ability) as did number four. Szoo cast Elemental Half-Plate Armor [fire] on himself. The flames coursed over his scaly flesh and hardened into strange looking plates of a mystical nature. Excor leveled his spike at number one slightly nicking the demon with his lightning bolt. Imp number two and three ignited their blazing auras as well. Gornix blasted the third imp again with his chrono-missiles horribly wounding it. The first imp kicked at Excor’s head drawing some blood.
Cris: “Damn these things! I’m hurt BAD!”
The fourth imp tried to kick Szoo in the head but missed. Excor quickened a lightning bolt on imp number one but only slightly scratched it again. Szoo cranked back his staff, swung a mighty blow at imp number four, and nearly threw his weapon away as lightning flashed overhead. Luckily he snatched it back before it fully escaped his grip. Fauna slung a lightning bolt at number two dealing some damage to the little monster. Number two responded with a fearsome face kick but was parried easily by Fauna. Gornix again shot chrono-missiles at number three finally blasting it into oblivion. He then cast close wounds on himself.
Fauna cast another lightning bolt at number two dealing some damage to it. Number four tried to fly over and kick Szoo in the head again but locked its hooves with his staff. Excor leveled his spike at number one hurting it some with an electrical bolt. Number two tried to smash Fauna in the face again but she parried. Number one tried to cast Pox on Excor but he was able to resist the curse. Gornix took some time to check his array of wizardly knowledge about the imps (his Dark Knowledge Wizard specialist class ability) shouting out to the others where the creatures’ weaknesses lay. Szoo kept the fourth imp’s tiny hooves locked with his staff.
Jenn: “Gawd! These things are tough!”
Cris: “Yeah! No duh! These are TOUGH, there’s still THREE of ‘em! I’m BAD with hit points how’re you?”
Jenn: “I’m hurt!”
Fauna cast a lightning bolt at number two severely wounding it. Imp number four tried to break the lock with Szoo but couldn’t break loose. Number two tried to kick at Fauna but missed horribly and fell to the ground from the air. Number one tried again to stamp its hooves into Excor’s forehead but was parried due to pure luck (Cris rolled a natural 20 parry). Gornix swung his staff at the imp on the ground but missed. Szoo maintained his lock on imp number four. Gornix made another swing with his staff before the fallen imp could leap into the air and bashed its skull.
Gornix swung again at number two’s head cracking its dome. Fauna cast lightning bolt at number two but the creature avoided the bolt. Number two leapt into the air and kicked at Gornix but missed. Excor used his spike again at number one adding to its multiple abrasions. Number one failed to cast Pox at Excor. Number four failed to break Szoo’s lock. Szoo, overpowering imp four, swung his staff and slammed imp four into the ground.
Gornix swung his staff at number two again but the blow was easily parried. Fauna launched another lightning bolt at imp number two and finally blasted it to bits. Number one kicked at Excor again but missed. Imp number four tried to break the naga’s grapple again but again found itself too weak. Szoo maintained his grip. Gornix used his electrum ring to summon an eagle and sent it to attack number one. It missed.
Isis: “Ugh! I want to STAB this guy so BAD!”
The Other Players (in unison): “NO! Maintain your grapple!”
Excor leveled his copper spike at number one again but did no damage. Gornix attempted to perform a coup-de-grace on number four but he only slightly wounded it. As a result of Gornix’s strike it got free of Szoo’s grip. Imp number four jumped up into the air and took wing. Fauna cast a lightning bolt at number four dealing some damage. Szoosha dropped his staff and unsheathed his dagger. Number one tried to kick Excor again and again missed.
Gornix cast chrono-missile at number four which it tried and failed to dodge. It was somewhat wounded now. Fauna tried but failed to cast lightning bolt. Szoo tried to stab number four but wound up flinging his dagger about 10 ft. away. Number one again tried and failed to kick Excor in the chops. Gornix’s eagle struck at number one again but its talons were parried. Gornix then pegged number four with some more chrono-missiles.
Cris: “S#@%! I’m on K.O. points!”
Excor cast Close Wounds on himself. Gornix’s eagle again struck at number one but missed. Gornix let loose another barrage of chrono-missiles at number one finally blasting it from the stormy sky. Fauna cast lightning bolt on number four wounding it. Number four went to kick Gornix in the face and he took the damage and simul-attacked (using his Battle Magic feat) with the chrono-missile spell finally killing it. Excor found Szoo’s lost dagger. All were badly wounded, nearly out of magic and the vitality needed to work it.
The mages limped back to Gornix’s apartment as fast as they could. They barricaded the door and secured the window shudders. Gornix cast Close Wounds on himself and Fauna applied healing salve to everyone including herself. They figured they were safe enough to not set a watch, as if they could if they wanted to.
To Be Continued…
Mentioning the grim reaper conjures up the gruesome image of death, a worm-eaten skeleton cloaked in rot-black and bearing a scythe used to cut-down the living like chaff which manifests personally or through its followers especially in the fantasy realms of role-playing games. Whatever its guise it is inevitably an inescapable force as present in the fictional universe as it is a process in the actual and it is inevitable that Player Characters (PCs) will die on occasion. How should the player, the Game-Master (GM), and the adventurer group as a whole handle it when a Player Character (PC) is cut-down in their prime?
When characters are killed regardless of the cause or where the fault may lie and ignoring such phenomena as DoDs (Dungeons of Death) and Killer GMs, it can have an emotional impact on the player and on the course of the campaign in general. The player’s feeling of loss probably originates from losing something that they have in effect birthed directly from their imaginations and possibly spent quite some time molding, building and adapting. Players in other words tend to specialize in their characters making all transitions to new characters, not just due to death either, fairly difficult. The intimate knowledge the player has of their character has to be let go, partially forgotten in order for them to move on. Such options as building a character of a different race, culture, or character class than their former character can help as well as preventing them from consciously or unconsciously recreating their old character.
The player may also feel the emotional impact of sudden loss which is comprised of surprise, disappointment, and what amounts to the sting of ‘losing the game’. Of course as individuals, players will feel any combination of the previous and at varying degrees. Any shame or scorn the group heaps upon them due to their negative reaction or visible disappointment will only magnify these negative feelings and will discourage new players from returning and may give them second thoughts about joining any other gaming groups they may encounter in the future. A sensible amount of sensitivity in these situations is usually called for although if a character dies in a bizarre, stupid, or just plain comedic way, then laughing at it or telling stories about it in good humor are typically not out of line. Criticism of how the player directed their character can wait however allowing for a little time to pass (probably until the next game session) and should come in the form of helpful non-condescending advice.
When PCs die it has the most immediate and most emotional impact on the PC’s player but it also can throw a major wrench into the GMs plans and send the campaign head-on into a dead-end or cause it to tailspin into chaos. This occurs when the dead character was involved in at least one important unresolved plotline. Even unimportant plotlines can have a cumulative effect on the campaign if the number of unresolved plots tied to a dead character is numerous. Some of said plots will be simply cut-off essentially being resolved by the character’s death unable to continue but may still leaving behind a feeling of irresolution. This sense of incompletion can be used by the Game-Master to generate some new hooks. This remains true for those threads that are vitally important to the campaign as well. The sense of needing to have an end to these loose-ends is an opening and chance to catch the attentions of the living PCs.
In the advent of character death the GM needs to make a quick assessment as to exactly which plotlines have been cut-off and which simply leave the group with a feeling of emptiness and which are necessary to steer the campaign. The GM needs to think of ways to reattach the important threads back to the surviving members if they have not already done so in the course of play up to that point. At the very least, the GM needs alternate lines, back-up plans, to work around the loss or drop clues so as to cause the survivors to seek out the loose threads. The GM, with the player’s permission, can also use this as an opportunity to clue the other PCs in on certain hidden aspects of the dead character letting them get to know the deceased character in an indirect way adding a little more deepness to the game.
This all rides on the assumption of course that death is not something that is easy to overcome. In role-playing games and especially those in the fantasy genre, the settings tend to alter the nature of death itself making it in some situations more an inconvenience rather than the ultimate fate of a living being. This is reliant on how death is treated in the setting material, by the GM, and by the player group. Magical resurrection is typically the solution to “bring back” dead characters so any dependent plots are only temporarily stalled taking some of the difficulty from the role of the GM reducing death to a simple narrative device. Of course, there are other implications to this approach both mechanically and sociologically/philosophically in respect to the game world. The effects on the attitudes of the world’s occupants can range from complete indifference to the phenomena of death to outright non-morality when it comes to certain actions such as murder. What does it matter if the victim will be resurrected easily even though there may still be psychological damage to tend with after suffering such a trauma? Mechanically the questions to answer regarding resurrection are its availability, its difficulty, and stipulations (if any). All three points can and should be regulated by the GM but if the GM is using material authored by a third-party such as a purchased setting and/or supplements their hands may be tied, especially if the group objects, the alteration may ‘break’ the setting/world, or the GM has already set an in-game precedent (probably for plot convenience).
There are 3 basic mechanical approaches to the nature of death in an RPG: Resurrection, Permanent Death (also referred to as Perma-Death), and No-Death. The thrill of narrowly avoiding death is a great motivator for players and is the primary (and for the GM easiest) source of suspense in dire situations. Precluding death of any kind when regarding the PCs eliminates this and in effect does reduce the fun a bit although it will make all the players feel “safe” foisting more weight onto the shoulders of the GM to set-up the thrills. Another trade-off to this approach is that the GM doesn’t have to worry about random deaths throwing a wrench into their plans. Players should feel that there is risk in the game world concerning their characters. This opens an easy avenue for the GM to create tension. But the GM should stop short of just “knocking one off” just to send a message to their players. Done right death will be a palpable presence in the game whenever the players pick up their dice in a risky situation. Death also opens the possibility of death-defying heroics and the potential for self-sacrifice. Characters can suffer near-death experiences and players can enjoy or suffer the excitement of escaping the slavering jaws of death some may even make it a habit to tempt death whenever they can precluding the need to make an “example” out of anyone. However, this approach can elevate emotions and exacerbate player reaction if a PC bites it at the height of the action.
Permanent death may heighten the tension but it in my experience it seems to cause the players to tread a little too lightly especially if they’re attached to their characters they tend to want to err on the side of caution every time bogging the game down and reducing the potential for action immensely. Permanent death should be a shadow hanging over the PCs imaginary heads but there should always be a possibility for reversing the course (often magic or divine intervention become the narrative devices in this mode) though this option shouldn’t be easy or readily available to just anyone for reasons discussed previously.
Another aspect of in-game death that can become an issue is its level of apparent randomness. Random death is a real possibility when including death in the game (the dice do fall where they may). Basically this happens when without intending to the GM presents a situation where a PC is killed and the GM had planned otherwise. This is also true of NPCs though a dead NPC is easier to “write out” and find a way around their plotline also the emotional component is much less pronounced as well even if the NPC is well-liked maybe even beloved by the group. The players, without much need for sensitivity can treat NPC-death as a role-playing opportunity. Players should however mind the GM’s pride in such situations. Of course, death shouldn’t appear as too random to the point that players feel it doesn’t matter what they do, they’re just going to die anyway. If the players begin to take that attitude then the GM may have made things a bit too difficult and may need to pull it back a little.
The nature of death in TRPGs is largely determined by the participants and secondarily by the published materials that they are using. This is also largely true of what amounts to the afterlife of the deceased character as well. Sometimes a setting, usually fantasy settings, will have a literal afterlife for dead characters to progress into and possibly adventure through (sometimes even while their still living). This essentially creates a no-death situation when viewed at certain angles but generally disengages the sense of loss that should accompany death even if the separation from the in-game living may be there, it usually can be breached if it hasn’t already especially concerning certain RPG character archetypes. By the breaching of the barrier between life and death I do mean the actual ability to communicate with the dead, travel into the dimensions of the dead (the actual afterlife), or otherwise have a factual or working knowledge that there is indeed an afterlife and perhaps even its nature is also known. If the barrier remains intact and even if communication with the afterlife is possible, its nature remains ambiguous then the main question is about what has the dead PC left behind.
How is the dead character going to be remembered, what is the in-game legacy that they’ve left, and how long will it remain? Players can treat the death of their characters as the final character development; in essence it is exactly that. It should be determined how they are remembered and how the NPCs that knew them will react such as building a monument, composing a song, the character’s name figuring into a legend or song of the event especially if there are witnesses. Also do not discount the heaping of scorn onto their name if they died foolishly and perhaps a divisive tract authored for manipulative purposes. What is the nature of their commemoration? If the character has relatives or offspring will they carry on the legacy of the dead character? The group as a whole with the GMs guidance should take some time and figure out what the legacy of the dead character is. This ad-hoc eulogy may also help to bring home the loss to the group providing for a somewhat solemn role-playing opp.
The legacy of the departed character consists of the lasting opinions of the NPCs that have encountered them or that had relationships with them including relatives and descendants. These opinions and whatever personal anecdotes a character, especially NPCs, carry may only last as long as the character themselves particularly if nothing was recorded or commemorative works composed with respect to the game world. It will also include any leftover material wealth which will definitely come to the attention of their companions probably more immediately than the GM would like. Any dwellings or items and literary works that the character has created or influenced in-game will stand as a testament to their existence within the game-world even leaving a legacy in the form of a uniquely customized item or weapon which can at least carry their name onward if not standing as a reminder of their story/legend. But as with most stories it’s the most sensational bit that will burn its image into the minds of the players, PCs, and NPCs. Probably the most critical part of the deceased’s legacy, the bit that will be the most likely remembered, is how they died.
With the inclusion of death as stated before there is the potential for the glorious heroic death and the potential for self-sacrifice. Critically this allows players the opportunities to commit their characters to the Good Death. Players should never be forced or pushed into sacrificing their characters; it should be their choice. The good death is a death that happens on the terms of the character for the most part and from their death the potential for something good and lasting to come of it. This can mean the player chooses to have their character face death with discipline and bravery and eyes wide open or have them fight to the bitter and all too obvious end. The good death is the player’s choice and that which plays to their character either displaying their personality, serving as a redeeming development, or a heroic end. The Good-Death in an odd way contributes to the wholeness of the character. Any way you cut it, it is the end of that character’s personal story but an end with a flourish that will be remembered (if there’s a witness to remember it that is).
A good death should carry some kind of meaning as well not just for the character themselves but especially for the player whose character it was. Hopefully this meaning carries over to the group as a whole and at its best will influence the campaign in a positive way. If nothing else it should inspire some interesting war-stories. A good death can help to soften the personal blow that the player feels as well. Of course, if the character dies randomly their death may just be a fact of in-game life.
RPG-Death should be reasonably random in nature and be somewhat defeatable under special circumstances. Death in role-playing games doesn’t and in most cases shouldn’t follow the parameters of Perma-Death and definitely not seem to be entirely random. It should serve in its primary capacity to add a definitive element of thrill and risk into the game as well as provide opportunities for the PCs for a Good Death and as the final character development rather than merely the bitter end of a character. Where the players may have to deal with the death of a character in personal terms the GM has to deal with the death of PCs and the sudden deaths of NPCs in primarily mechanical ones.
The GM must keep track of their plot-points and the threads which wind and braid throughout their campaign and have backup plans for the important plotlines as well as a finely-honed talent for quickly and neatly tying together severed plotlines when necessary especially when confronted with a sudden and unexpected character death. The GM should also keep in mind the mechanical capacities of the PCs so as not to have to experience the unintentional extermination of the entire adventuring group in what is known as the Total Party Kill (TPK) phenomena. There is no recovering a game from a TPK as everyone is probably going to have to generate new characters that will probably not have any meaningful connections with the previous characters at all though it is possible to generate PCs that are related in various ways to the former not to mention the use of apprentices, protégés, and squires. These may pick-up any dangling threads left over by their predecessors but will definitely not be able to pick back up every single one to reboot the previous campaign. Also GMs shouldn’t use character death to punish players or as an excuse to penalize them though there should be consequences (which can invest the players in their current or new characters even more if handled correctly). Basically, don’t intentionally try to kill PCs especially since sometimes Random Death can still rear its ugly head when you least expect it.
Death like most other components of TRPGs is an opportunity to deepen the game and add to the experience of all of the participants. It is a component which contains thrills, risk, and strong emotions in strange and varying amounts and which leaves an indelible mark on the memory. It is a very heavy subject even where concerning RPGs and is almost a living part of them as sometimes it can be just as unpredictable and out of the GMs hands as in real-life but the nature of which can be altered and borders regulated to maximize enjoyment and make the most of the game.