Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom #4. TPK Anyone?

tpkThis month’s musical question is:

There is a wide spectrum of lethality in RPGs, and there are GMs who fall on every possible point within it. These range from GMs who run campaigns where PCs can never die to the other extreme—GMs who delight in killing PCs. Where do you fall on this spectrum? How lethal are your games and why? How do you handle PC death if and when it happens?

As fun as it is to kill PCs, I don’t do it often. A few deaths a campaign, and that’s gritty for me. I don’t kill them enough. I used to kill them too much. Now it’s rare. And that really bothers me.

So I maim them.

Of course, every system is different. In Call of Cthulhu or Dark Heresy players expect very bad things to happen. I maim them a lot. In one Dark Heresy game I had a group of killers break into the PCs bedrooms and burn the characters with plasma rifles. The PCs woke up screaming and melting.

But no deaths. Eyeballs melted out of skulls? Check. Limbs exploded in fatty flames? Check. Players freaking out? Check.

I miss that game.

Warhammer_fantasy_roleplay_coverI really miss Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay v2, now out of print. Those crit tables were to a maimer’s dream come true. Luckily you can see the same kind of terrible effects in FFG’s 40k books. Limbs gone, faces burned off, eyes melted (didn’t I mention that already?), and more.

Besides maiming, one-shotting NPCs allies helps create a sense of threat. The players know they are tougher than an NPC, but when they see their ally transformed into a stain on the floor in the blink of an eye, it does set the mood. And when you get to the maiming, the player doesn’t feel so bad.

A Song of Ice and Fire RPG is another maimer’s playground. When my character (see, I don’t always GM!) wouldn’t yield, and my captors held my hand down on a stump, you can’t say I didn’t know what was coming. Jamie isn’t the only lackhand in Westeros.

In games like Numenera, it’s more about exploring a weird and dangerous world, and the system gives the PCs control over how they manage that danger. I knock them down and they find a way to get back up. Somebody always pulls out just the right cypher.

The Numenera core book includes a rule for maiming instead of death: Lasting or Permanent Damage as a Death Replacement. In place of a good maiming I often mutate the PCs. Love those mutants. And those knights who like to hunt them down!

D&D and similar games have mechanics to always keep the players ahead of the monsters. Even a hard fight doesn’t have a significant chance of death if you follow the guidelines. These games are about heroes, and maiming them doesn’t stick in a high magic story. I at least want the replacement bits to look alien and frightful. Kind of takes the fun out it when some cleric chants and the hand grows back, no scars or nothing!

If you want gritty stories, then exceed the safety limits. Use threats of a higher level than normal.

I appreciate 13th Age’s battle building advice: “We’ve provided balanced monsters so that you can choose interesting ways to make most all battles unfair…” Then it goes on to list entertaining ways to make things unfair to the players, and encourages you to use them in every single battle. You’ve got to cheat a bit to maim and kill.

a-diceI also like something else from 13th Age: the Meaningful Death Rule (stolen from 7th Sea): Bad dice can’t kill you, only named villains can fully slay a PC. Nameless monsters can only put you in a coma, carry you back to their master, who is of course a named villain, and prepare you for sacrifice. Scary stuff, but this provides plenty of opportunity for daring rescues.

Hillfolk and other story heavy games might have very little or no violence. Player death might only happen if everyone at the table agrees it makes a better story.

Of course, Fiasco can be a bloodbath, but people expect that. Fiasco is also always a one shot, not a campaign, and players are more accepting of death when they know their is no next game to worry about.

For me, it comes down to the story we’re collectively telling at the table. Ask your players, what kind of story do they want?

And check out this post on Run Away or Always Win.


The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you’d like to submit a topic for our future discussions, or if you’re a blogger who’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at gamemastersjourney@gmail.com.

This month’s topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker.

The rest of the Roundtable has great things to say about player death. Read on!

Marc Plourde – The Mortality of the Situation at http://inspstrikes.blogspot.com/2015/04/nuts-bolts-27-game-masters-roundtable.html

James August Walls – Dead and Loving It – My Evening as a DCC Player at http://ilive4crits.blogspot.com/

Scott Robinson – Lethality and the RPG as a Relativistic Game at http://strangeenc.blogspot.com/2015/04/lethality-and-rpg-as-game.html

Lex Starwalker – How Lethal Are Your Campaigns? at http://www.starwalkerstudios.com/blog/2015/4/6/game-masters-roundtable-of-doom-4-how-lethal-are-your-campaigns

John Clayton Fatality! at http://blog.filesandrecords.com/2015/04/fatality/

Peter Smits – PCs and the killing thereof at http://planeataryexpress.blogspot.com/2015/04/pcs-and-killing-there-of.html

Arnold K. at http://goblinpunch.blogspot.com/

Evan Franke – To be or not to be . . . a Killer GM at http://asageamonghisbooks.blogspot.com/2015/04/game-masters-roundtable-of-doom-4-to-be.html