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Related: What to do when a player character goes suicide and How can DMs effectively telegraph specific dangers in D&D?

I like playing sandbox-style RPGs (whether pen and paper or computer), so when I GM that's the style of game I run. However, I find myself far too eager to kill off characters.

I will invent some plot of the form, "Things in this area work this and this way," then I let the characters loose in the world. They often miss the clues I expect them to find about key dangers. (Dangers such as: antagonists can be unknown to them, such when an assassin who seems innocent until it's too late; a deadly trap that is regularly maintained so that it doesn't have skeletons giving it away; and so on.) Because of this, the PCs often stumble into significant dangers completely unwitting and unprepared and get killed. I think my players are getting frustrated when a character dies suddenly and they never know why.

A good example is the aforementioned assassin. This NPC assassin had made his risk calculations, done the necessary background research on the group, prepared appropriate equipment, designed and rehearsed the ambush, prepared multiple contingency plans, and had made remaining undetected a high priority in the ambush plan. As a result, the target PC gets a crossbow bolt in the throat and nobody ever spots the assassin.

One thing I know I should do more of is to better explain the dangers of the setting to the players. I know I should, but how to do that effectively is a skill acquired from GMing practice and studying the genre, so knowing I need to improve that doesn't immediately help.

I've considered changing the game genre/tone to something more heroic and fetch-quest-like: "You are heroes and clearly above normal people. In the pub, a villager asks your group to go to the river and bring a bucket of water for his sick mother. He has no time for such a quest, as he has to plough his land". That's not a very satisfying or believable sort of game for me, though.

Maybe I should talk to the players outside of the game and make it clear that "dangerous things are dangerous!!!" but I would have thought that all the dead PCs and NPCs would have already made that clear.

What else can I do to reduce player character mortality, while retaining as much of the tone of realism, consequences for choices*, and player autonomy as possible?

* An by consequences I mean, for example, if one kills a cop in our own world the chance of continuing to live a free life are pretty slim. The players should be free to choose such risky actions, but should also have some way of knowing that it is risky.

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The way people handle assassins in real life is to hire a large amount of bodyguards to handle crowd security. If your game for some reason discourages this, assassins with a motive to kill your characters will kill your characters so the only way to avoid that is to not have assassins motivated to kill your characters. –  medivh Aug 15 '13 at 9:53

9 Answers 9

up vote 21 down vote accepted

First and foremost, a GM should always remember that the objective of a game is to have fun. The thing is that "fun" can mean different things to different people, and it sounds like what's fun for you to create isn't as fun for the players when it's executed - and the end result isn't all that fun for you either, since you're sharing this issue here.

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Create expectations for the game world before you begin play. By talking to your players and letting them know you will not be pulling punches nor delivering "level-appropriate encounters" exclusively, they are more likely to on their toes and less likely to rush into danger because they (as players) KNOW that there is a possibility that this particular adversary is too strong for them. If this happens, though, expect to see a decreased reliance on combat resolution on behalf of the PCs.
  2. Treat the players actions with the same degree of respect you expect from them. A player can only control his or her character in the entire game world. If they do something that should trigger a response, make sure your NPCs respond in a way that is congruent with the setting and with the knowledge that the NPC have of the actions (as opposed to the knowledge that you, as a GM, know). For instance, if your players kill off a guardsman but do it without leaving obvious traces, consider how far the authorities would be willing to go to track down the killer and respond accordingly. Ever played a videogame in which you kill off an NPC in a secluded area of the game world and cops/guards immediately show up guns blazing even when no one SHOULD even know a crime was committed? If your players feel like that, they have no reason to be careful, since they feel the game world will just react according to the GM's whims.
  3. Danger is fun; immutable doom is not. As a GM, you always have the power to kill your players, but there are ways that are fun and ways that aren't. Since the job of a GM is partly to provide entertainment (for himself AND the other players), make it a point to find ways to throw threats at your players without instantly killing them. "Lightning strikes you. You die" is a perfectly legitimate thing for a GM to say. After all, he controls the world, which includes weather. Is that fun for a player, though? The example with the assassin that you mentioned, from the player's perspective, amounts to pretty much the same thing. As cool as the concept of the undetectable assassin is, the assassin missing his first shot (or perhaps not scoring a killing blow) makes for a gaming experience as the PCs scramble (they don't know if more shots are coming their way), try to find out who fired the shot (and probably fail since your assassin has escape plans), and are generally spooked because the situation just demonstrated that a) someone is out to kill them, and b) they're good enough to get away with it undetected. This puts the ball in the players court, as they decide what to do about it, and lo and behold, you have a game.

As a final comment, I'd like to recommend Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering. This book has plenty of tips and hints on how to make your sessions fun for both yourself and your players. It's a resource you might find useful to liven things up around your gaming table.

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+1 Danger is fun; immutable doom is not. lol :D I think I am missing the first point. I strive to hold to the second, and the dice decide the third. –  Vorac Aug 1 '12 at 7:02
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"First and foremost, a GM should always remember that the objective of a game is to have fun." Amen to that, and if it means a bit of fourth-wall breaking so that the GM can just ask the players what they want out of a game, and match that with what the GM wants, and quit with no hard feelings if there's not enough overlap, then I for one happily pick up the hammer. –  MadHatter Aug 1 '12 at 10:47

Simply speaking if your players do not like your style of play and expect something else then you should change it.

Taking your assassin example: why is he even after them? Did they ever make an enemy who would be so keen on having them dead? They should be aware that someone might want them dead and so they can at least be cautious. Not only that, people make mistakes - protagonists make mistakes and, what is more important, antagonists too: The Monologue (warning, TV Tropes link!) before finishing off the good guy, underestimating or overestimating them or a blatant overlook in their plan.

Ask yourself: wouldn't the plot be better if the assassin's objective was only to scare or capture them? He can even get sloppy: forget to clean up after a job, incorrectly set the trap up.

You don't need to go from one extreme (unavoidable deaths) to another (100% death avoidance), find your own golden ratio.

Maybe you could to talk with your players to determine their expectation? The best advice I can give (which seems to be answer to 100% of communication/expectation issues) is to bring this to your players in a calm and civilized manner without any finger pointing.

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Also, why was a master assassin hired? It's expensive and dangerous to deal with such people when it's cheaper to pay petty thugs to beat someone to death. A cheaper assassination would be both more believable and more likely for the PCs to overcome in direct conflict. You only send in the expensive assassin when easier methods fail and the target is still worth the trouble. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 31 '12 at 23:25

Whether or not the game is an open sandbox or not, the characters are the heroes (read: the main protagonists and point of view characters) of the tale. As such, a certain amount of suspension of disbelieve is to be had. They should succeed where everyone else should have failed. They are special, even if Fate has not planned anything for them.

I guess think of your game more like building a novel (or TV series or Film) about the characters rather than a board game with pawns. Nobody would be interested in reading "Queen's pawn 3 tales of the nothing happens then dies pointlessly". However, everyone would love to read about "Rook's pawn, who took the place of her brother (she is a girl), crosses a world full of dangers, saves the King, becomes his mighty Queen, and in the last battle kills the evil Black King."

So, when you are planning your encounters instead of looking at rules, numbers, and states think "What could happen here so that the tale gets better?".

Your assassin example: He sees one the PC, who happens to be the son/daughter of an old friend of his -- or whatever but not falls in love with $girl as that's a terrible trope[1]... Now, the assassin decides to "miss" again and again. Now, the characters should realise that a really good assassin is keeping on missing them: another story thread for them to follow.

[1] As noted by Nigralbus not all tropes are bad but do try to be original as much as possible.

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Remember, though, tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TropesAreNotBad –  Nigralbus Jul 31 '12 at 11:00

I'd like to extend both Maurcycy's and Sardathrion's responses in saying that humans (and by extension, any race similar to human in even basic psychological fundamentals) are extremely emotional and emotion-driven creatures.

People are driven by pride, by the (both positive and negative) evaluation of their peers, by a need for gratitude and acceptance, by petty urges and selfish desires, by reckless interest and much, much more. People will make illogical, even self-destructive choices--and do so intentionally--because they're human. People can be stubborn, sticking to an entirely illogical and obviously wrong opinion or course of action just because. They can seek self-punishment to illogically lessen themselves when nobody stands to gain, or wish to see another be punished when, again, there is no logical gain. They will do something for the challenge of it, or avoid something that needs to be done. They hold grudges, and ignore faults in friends.

In all honesty few interesting characters in fiction aren't this way. Spock is one such example of someone not this way--calm and cool minded, always drawn towards the logical choice--but even he is most interesting when we find exceptions to this nature.

The assassin in your example is (or should be) driven by a core emotion--greed of money? Want of fame?--and was set on this task by someone driven by emotion, who was very likely inspired to hire the assassin by a very emotional reason--even if that reason was want for power, or a sense of security.

Emotion means many things. Inefficiency, self-destruction, poorly selected goals, and lacking effort (or misdirected effort) are just a few of these.

And at the end of the day? Emotional, flawed characters are the interesting ones, and this means emotional, flawed villains are the only interesting ones--unless you're both a particularly talented and cautious author. Expanding upon this idea further, only natural threats are not human (or human-like creature) created or driven.

An interesting villian's motivation shouldn't be "to rule the world," but something more human, more emotional than that that drives almost all of his actions. Better yet, he has a number of emotional drives that compete and conflict.

If your treats seem like they might be too perfect, too deadly, you might want to consider that they're too Vulcan.

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@MrJinPengyou: I think it does answer it in a round about way. I think that the answer can be summed as by giving NPCs strong emotions, they can act more irrationally thus allowing the PCs room to avoid being whatever fate the NPCs had planned for the PCs. –  Sardathrion Jul 31 '12 at 13:28
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+1 Good feedback! I think it nicely extends other answers but it could use more, hmm, flesh to stand better on its own. –  Maurycy Zarzycki Jul 31 '12 at 14:57

First, as a GM, you need to understand something about player knowledge vs. character knowledge. Players are not the characters. If you tell them: You have a big dragon in front of you and they say : Oh cool, let's kill it! It is your duty to tell them that their character know how dangerous a dragon is. How impossible it is with their current "level" (I don't like to use that in-game but whatever) is not enough to beat the dragon. Make them understand that they "know" it's an impossible fight.

It also works with encounters they could beat but the players are just not clever enough to do it. A character with high intelligence played by a player with...less cognitive capacity..should receive clues from the GM. If they listen to some noise that comes from everywhere and the players are like : It's the echo..make the smart character say : No...they surround us.

I think you should also reconsider how you build your encounters. An assassin with better gear and preparation is way deadlier than a bunch of thug. If you have a sniper at a large distance with the advantage of surprise...even if this NPC is about the level he has a clear advantage. Dangerous things are dangerous...but remember that the PC usually are the guy stumbling on those things. Make them have the advantage from time to time. Every system and setting have a different typical low-level encounter. If you want to create a little more powerful beginning just increase the character level accordingly.

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+1 reminds me of this dialogue: GM:"You see a large lizard..." Players: "We attack it!". GM: "the dragon breaths fire on you all. You are dead". Players: Really? A lizard! –  Sardathrion Jul 31 '12 at 13:47
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+1 I like the advise to think about the player characters. –  Vorac Aug 1 '12 at 7:56

My thoughts are that unless the players are willfully engaging in dangerous shenanigans (i.e. "it's how I roleplay" or they are not roleplaying at all and thus attempting things their character never would) then ultimately the failing is on you as a GM.

Your example with the assassin is pretty revealing in what areas you need to change. RPGs are about story, but they aren't a story in the traditional sense of a film or a novel and as such you need to take play balance into consideration when you are drafting challenges for your players. The assassin was essentially an unbeatable opponent and you built him that way. As much story might be behind the assassin's deadliness, it's essentially "rocks fall, everyone dies"/Killer Game Master.

As GM you hold all the cards, and you need to wear two hats: One where you are the narrator for the world and the game master creating dungeons and scenarios that are fair and level appropriate for the players, and the other where you are the antagonist playing the villains and monsters you have created against the players. Those two roles should be fairly compartmentalized, because the second you mix them the world design itself becomes overtly antagonistic and the villains and challenges posses a kind of meta-knowledge/genre savvy that allows them to easily overwhelm players.

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It's only a solution for your example, not the bigger problem, but I'll throw this out there:

This perfect assassin is too good to be an encounter, so make her an NPC. Instead of killing the target outright, she makes it abundantly clear that she could have killed him, perhaps with a crossbow bolt pinning his hat to the wall with a message attached. Then she makes her demands: maybe they have to pay her 50% of their adventuring haul, maybe they have to help her defeat a tyrannical baron, maybe they can buy her off with a rare and precious magic item, maybe they have to work for her, killing people of unknown innocence on her say-so (it starts with obvious bad guys they'd be happy to take on, then things get more gray; how far will they go?).

Oh yeah, and the intended victim first has to fake his death so the assassin's paymaster doesn't get suspicious.

If they have any sense, the players will go along with it at first, while they have a gonne to their heads. Most players don't like being told what to do, so they'll start brainstorming ways to get out from under her Damocle's sword very quickly. If you want to string it out, give them reasons to sympathize with the assassin. Perhaps she's a dwarf, and she wants to save her mountain home from a swarm of ancient stone golems recently awakened, so she needs the Amulet of MacGuffin; now the dwarf in the party might resist the other player's insistence on a quick and deadly solution to their problem.

There's an opportunity here for non-combat characters: the safest way to get rid of Madam Nightshade permanently may be to blackmail her.

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I did a game several years back where the PC's were the targets; after they reached the general level of 10, they were considered heroic, legends, etc. Sure, Lord so-and-so, impressed with their rep, sends out a courier for a dirty laundry run (please kill the cave filled with bandits)...

but don't you think the bad guys want them gone?

Did a huge campaign where the heroe's quest was more of a very long survival mission; they had accepted beating up the bad guy (The GodKing) who was somewhat aware of him. Every thug and brute they beat brought more; they were irking the guy. Soon they were throwing down bandit groups, land pirates, fortune-seekers and gloryhounds, not to mention sellsowrds and mercenaries. After this clearly didn't work, the GodKing was offering lucrative incentives to kill the players off; they'd cross the line one too many times. At one point in time, the PC's were practically uruspers, and they lucky SOB that got them would gain a Lordship. Practically anywhere they went (from settlement to city) had at least a certain percentage of the population actively trying to kill them. Poisonings, assassination attempts, door-kickers, bribed guards, corrupt officials... they had the kitchen sink thrown at them for good measure. They fully expected to be antagonized almost every foot of the way, no matter if they were buying supplies, camping, sleeping, eating, or in the middle of beating up one other group (and that was fun, throw more cannon fodder in the middle of cannon fodder!) Every turn in a city had a risk roll, be it for robbery, assassination, being accosted, arrest attempt, or cursed. While their reputations had good guys helping them at most every turn, this became a 'Bad-guys-pouring-out-of-the-woodworks' scenario; they practically only needed to travel after devastating a chunk of the current population dealing with rogues, blackguards, and opportunists trying to kill them.

Don't blame me. They asked for a tough, exciting game. I gave them an endless battle. Wish granted.

To give the players a bone, I stole an idea out of 80's cartoons. Remember Thundercats and GI Joe? Sometime during the cartoon, they creators would give the kiddies' brains a little break and give them a piece of the plot. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about...

Meanwhile, at Castle Greyskull/Cobra Command/wherever...

Fill in a little insider info with some drama. If the bad guys really really really want your awesome characters dead, make up a rumor mill. Someone you saved once before might let you in on a little thing he overheard. That Lord who's daughter you saved might hire a courier to inform you of what some prisoner confessed to in prison. Perhaps your religious character gets a divine dream, something s/he can't shake off. Or, you could tell them in a dramatic way; a bandit they just killed happens to have what looks to be some orders with their names on it. Or a guard who is a good man is indecisive if he really should arrest your PC's because he knows his Lord is corrupt, but knows that you're good as well.

Came up with this intriguing little item called the Adversary's Bane. You could have your PC's get an item that tells them only the direction (or only the distance) of the nearest/biggest/most imposing threat. Only one thing... like biggest threat, which might not stop a bum with a knife trying to mug you, or nearest threat, which might pick up on the robber lifting your coin, but not the archer taking aim two blocks away. It was more misleading than useful, but it was a very fun semi-plot device that would let me control where they players went (because I could guess if they'd take the bait or not).

Up to you, but there are plenty of ways to make it tough without being too horribly lethal. I always went for numbers over strength; 40 crunchies make a dent, but can only fill som many squares, as oppose to a level 40 juggernaut who might mop the floor with you.

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I don't run super-deadly campaigns and to me the OP sounds real aggressive w/o reason or warning. But I like your approach. Like "fiction first" games (Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, etc), you "Announce Future Badness", and the "Adversary's Bane" sounds like one of the outcomes of a "Read a Situation" move. The difference btw Art & Craft: If you master the tables, rules, and planning (as the OP has), you know your Craft. But mastering What The Players Want and creating an Unforgettably Dramatic Narrative - that's Art. Whole 'nother type of GMing. Sounds like you've got both going on. :-) –  As If Jun 14 at 22:58

Some games makes it really easy to get your hands on someone without him suspecting anything and the advantage is always on the offense.

I've been playing D&D 3.x for quite some time now and apart from the infamous "teleport in, silence, coup-de-grace, teleport out" techinque, even in plain duels the one that decides to kill a target that's willing to play the game has an unfair advantage. This often comes into the form of knowing who your enemy is (you can't divine someone you don't know about), figuring out the weaknesses of PCs by sending waves of mooks against them, hiring someone who is a natural counter to the party, equipping appropriately for the only one enemy you will find in your career. Specializing for some form of damage dealing is easier than specializing in defense against everything that exists, and so on.

This is the problem of being a PC. Your resources are to be invested in so many different things if you want to survive them all, and the enemy can invest only in the resources he needs to get you. And they can learn from you, but you face a different enemy every time.

One solution would be making your opponents just as diversified, but the risk is they will look incompetent at their role because they didn't prepare. Or you coul choose a system that's more abstract and values the results more than thee means, meaning that no matter what the assassin really prepared he only gains a small advantage on the fight, or no advantage at all except for a different description.

I like to quote Vincent D. Baker in Dogs in the Vineyard:

I should tell you, in an early playtest I startled one of my players bad with this very conflict. In most roleplaying games, saying “an enemy sneaks into your room in the middle of the night and hits you in the head with an axe” is cheating. I’ve hosed the character and the player with no warning and no way out. Not in Dogs, though: the resolution rules are built to handle it. I don’t have to pull my punches!

Not pulling your punches in your game results in character deaths.

(DitV can't be used for sandboxing, but is a good example of how a game that removes one of your problems exists. My knowledge is limited but I guess other systems like that exist and are more suited to your needs.)

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