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When a character reaches 0HP, they trigger the Last Breath move. The move has 3 outcomes:

  • Success: They cheat death
  • Partial success: Death offers them a deal
  • Failure: They are marked by death and so they will die, the moment the GM decides

All that I understand, I have problems inserting the move in the descriptions. Mostly because HP is abstract. If I get to the point where a character might die I would like their deaths to be narratively epic. Getting impaled, stomped or burned to death, etc...

Now that I am writing the question I think it might be a good idea to put the move just before the effects. Meaning they would roll last breath "before" getting hit. If they succeed they wouldn't get hit (or not with the same force, they would get to 0HP though). If they fail they would get hit and I would get to narrate the epic death.

But I'm not sure this is the best solution. You kind of lose the 'peering behind the veil' part.

I have no experience with character death. Does someone have some ideas/suggestions? I want death to be epic and flow into the game, but if this happened, I wouldn't know how to act as a GM.

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4 Answers 4

If they fail the Last Breath roll, now treat the character as having an impending epic death (assuming it's warranted in the fiction). The character can keep being awesome, but they (and likely everyone else) know that last hit was fatal and that they're a dead character walking. Save the death for an appropriate moment. An especially good one would be another failed roll on their part: your hard move is their death while barely but heroically managing to accomplish whatever they were attempting.

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First, remember the trigger of Last breath is when you're dying and not when an attack would hit you and you cheat Death. On a miss, Death is inevitable. That's really important. I usually don't bother making their character live for a week before dying suddenly. When an arrow pierces the skull, you're dead. Maybe that's just me, but it heavily depends on the context.

If you're in a normal situation where the swing would chop your head off and you fail your Last breath, just leave it there...don't bother be like "You're marked by Death and you have a week to live." No..your head rolls on the floor, Death walks between your friends standing still, takes your head in his hands and say:"Time to go". If you succeed or accept the deal tho, maybe you are fixed in time and the blade is about to chop your head off and Death moves the blade a couple of inches away from your neck saying: "Don't forget our deal". Those are example of physical threats, but if it's a curse, a poison or anything like that, maybe your character is dying and hang on to life for a week but dies no matter what elven herbs or potion they give you.

The best advice I can give you and it's valid for so many questions you could have about Dungeon World: In doubt, ask your players. They know better. Explain to them the boundaries of the move and let them tell you how their character avoids Death. It's their character after all.

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This is a hard question to answer, as it primarily depends on the GM's opinion on how death should be reflected in the current game. However, as usual, the GM is not the only one building the ficiton in Dungeon World. The players have just as much inpact on the fiction as the GM, and are even more involved in how things develop than the GM.

Now how does this affect on our possibilities to treat death as a GM? There are several steps to arrive in a situation where death occurs.

  • What decisions lead to a situation where death is likely?

Most importantly: death in Dungeon World (or any RPG for that matter) is not some surprising event that just occurs. There are distinct decisions leading up to a dangerous situation that can cause a PC to die. In this regard, death and the associated Last Breath need not rely on the mechanical fact that a PC drops to 0 HP. If in the fiction you fall off a high cliff, the result is not just d10 damage, because the fall could kill a common person. It is imminent death as a result of some decisions that lead the PC to get too close to the cliff and fall.

The same applies for combat situation. Players are always making decisions. A prime example of PCs facing death during combat scenes is players that just keep fighting on mindlessly against an overwhelming foe. Eventually, those decisions may lead to a PC facing death.

Both situations share an important property: both the GM and the players suspect and fear the imminent death of a PC. Remember, that the GM is required to be a fan of the characters. That implies being worried about the survival of your PCs as much as wanting to provide them an epic death should the situation require. The chain of decisions of the players should give the GM enough time to prepare an epic situation.

  • What to do with those actions that lead of to imminent death?

Now as it is in the GM's discretion to use hard or soft moves, the GM has the possibility to artificially set up an epic death. Say, having a PC's head chopped off by the final hit from a foe, which took him to 0 HP. However, such a situation would be, as you stated in your question, extremely hard to narrate and implement mechanically. When exactly should their Last Breath occur? It makes no sense for it to happen after their head is chopped off - how would they survive such a thing?

An alternative to the above situation could be that the PC kept fighting heedlessly and was simply dropped to 0 HP by a standard attack resulting from a missed Hack&Slash, for example. The PC faints and his foe is taking opportunity, preparing the final blow: the perfect moment for a Last Breath! If he succeeds, he briefly enough regains consciousness to avoid the final blow chopping off his head, then falls completely unconcious.

  • How would you narrathe this and still keep the looking behind the veil of death part?

The trigger for Last Breath states:

"When you're dying ..."

That is a mechanically very vague trigger and that is good. This way, you can treat the complete process of dying as the trigger. Further:

"The Last Breath is that moment standing between life and death. Time stands still as Death appears to clam the living for his own."

Thus, a good narration could indeed be, that the PC is briefly fixed in time and Death (or your equivalent supernatural force of choice) appears, and, depending on the roll, saves the PC or not.

So the conclusion that this first part provides is that yes, the situation that you initially described in your question indeed can be suitable to handle death.

However, on our quest for epicness, we as GMs often do forget about an important aspect:

  • Death is not always epic

Just as in real life, death in the fiction might just not be epic. Even when it is, it is still a bloody mess and a shocking moment for all closely related to the victim.

Another alternative to handle the above situation might invoke less feeling of epicness, but provide a more intense feeling of depression among your group. A PC is usually not alone. Another PC seeing the trouble might intervene. Say, the moment the Fighter faints doe to the lethal attack, the Ranger reacts and sends an arrow to the foe's head, stunning them for a brief moment. Has the Fighter cheated death now? Definitely not, he is still dying to his wounds! In the hands of one of his companion Cleric, he takes his Last Breath, misses and the Cleric feels his souls leave without anything to do. Intense.

Now what is the conclusion of all this? Really, there is no right or wrong. It all depends on the situation, the group, the GM. Anything can be right, and the mechanical trigger of Last Breath allows for a broad interpretation of how death can be dealt with in Dungeon World.

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Could keep on expanding for hours, but there has to be an end to a question at some point... –  iraserd Aug 30 at 9:55

It actually doesn't matter how you do this, because it works either way. Your ensuing narration just becomes different, because the preceding narration is different and you're building on slightly different fiction.

  • If you tell the player the damage before narrating what it looks like, you can wait until after resolving the Last Breath to describe the actual death.

  • If you describe the horrific death first, but Last Breath says they survive, then you stop and ask yourself "Well, they were stomped into a fine paste, but now they're alive: what does that look like?"

    This is just an application of playing to find out what happens. Maybe their revival is miraculous, with glowing lights enveloping the body and a choir singing. Maybe the physical destruction might not have been as bad as it looked to the other PCs, and it turns out that they're broken and battered but somehow, amazingly, still drawing breath. You can come up with much better examples contextually, I'm sure.

The idea that ties both together is that you build on the existing fiction. If you've already had the PC impaled on a giant's spear, narrate how they manage to still be a live. If you've already narrated the PC being consumed by dragonfire and blowing away to dust, narrate how they're still alive despite that. Remember that Dungeon World requires that you portray a fantastic world — be creative!

Just be sensitive to the trigger of Last Breath, and don't skip past the trigger and keep narrating. As soon as the PC is dying, the move triggers — no sooner nor later. You don't have permission to narrate beyond that point. Honouring this responsibility should make it both easier to figure out when the Last Breath should be rolled, and also make it easier to handle the exact degree and nature of the death's narration. You might get halfway through a very nasty death narration and have to "freeze time" while you switch to the scene in front of the Black Gate. The PC's body will still be there when you get back, no worries.

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