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So I have a plot that I want use, that will require a specific member of the team to be "Killed" in a run. The player is very invested in this character, and can take things at the table a little personally sometimes. I am 100% certain that if I can get that player to the end result of the plot, they will understand and hopefully even be glad for how it went down because that player is very much about the story.

One problem is that this plot ties up far down the road. I have 13 adventures currently mapped, with the potential for some side treks that could result in it taking longer. I really would prefer to keep as much of the plot as secret as possible, meaning the less I can tell the player, the better. But at the same time I want to minimize any conflict that may arise as a result.

I have considered just putting them in a death trap and forcing the issue, but this party is pretty resourceful about avoiding deathtraps. I think that while this player will accept the result another player in our group could get them spun up enough about how unfair the encounter was. I have considered telling the player that it will be a plot point, because I believe just telling them that will let them keep from pushing the issue. But, the disadvantage of doing this, telling them, also dispels some of the magic, and lets them know to be on the lookout for the clues, which could get them on to my ultimate plot far earlier than I intend.

Is there a technique I can use here to diffuse the situation?

For the record. What is happening is the result of their choices. The party made a deal with a devil(not so metaphorically) and the devil is claiming his due.

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    \$\begingroup\$ What do you have in mind for the player to do during the sessions after their character dies support your plot? Or is that what you are asking about: how to keep the player involved in the game once you have killed of their character? Is each person playing one character, or are they playing more than one character each? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 27 '18 at 15:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ yes one character each, I expect the player will create a new character. But yes I also need to mitigate the risk that the player will get frustrated before I completely slot them off in the culminating battle. \$\endgroup\$ – user2015 Jan 27 '18 at 15:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ ♦ Hi! For those visiting from other stack sites: please do not answer in comments on this stack. Also, as Korvin said: "Comments are not the place to berate Chad for having this situation. Please address all points in answers. If any of you think that this is an X-Y problem, or have a core issue with the intention, please do as some of the other members here have done and address it in an answer." Moderators will be removing comments that are berating or answering. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jan 29 '18 at 23:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ There is no way in Shadowrun to let a player die and make it look like it was an unplanned accident on the GMs part. Page 57 basic rulebook under "Burning Edge" => "Not dead yet" describes how you can permanently lose a point of Edge (other system might call it a Fate point or Force point for comparison) to avoid certain death. So a GM would need to flat out tell a player that the character is dead and overrule existing basic rules to really make it happen. It's super clear that the GM wants a character dead that way and would definitely make the player think the GM is out to get him. \$\endgroup\$ – nvoigt Feb 1 '18 at 15:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @nvoigt - The GM Does not want the character dead. The GM would have preferred the Team not poke this bear. But they poked said bear, and bear is taking payment for said misdeed. I could easily just slaughter the whole team and make them start over. Instead I am attempting to make grapeade. \$\endgroup\$ – user2015 Feb 1 '18 at 22:26

11 Answers 11

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Get buy-in to break your own play conventions

Normally, I'd tell you to rethink your whole approach. Messing with characters in this way tends to feel very disruptive: you're putting your GMly finger all over the one point of contact players really have with the whole game world in traditional-style RPG play, all in the service of creating a couple of cool scenes. That deal's just not worth it to most RPG players, even ones who are very comfortable with heavily GM-led styles.

But, in this case, you're pretty sure they go along with it if they understood:

I am 100% certain that if I can get that player to the end result of the plot, they will understand and hopefully even be glad for how it went down because they are very much about the story.

So, make that happen! Give them enough information that they can be on the same page with you, at least about the basic idea of "It would be really cool to kill off a protagonist here, in a pre-scripted way, so there can be some cool payoff later."

The reason to do that is that you're deviating from the typical (spoken and unspoken) norms of play. Talking it out a bit prepares them and makes it a mutual decision, which removes most of the potential uncertainty, confusion, and distrust that may result from changing up the flow of the game abruptly.

Remember, however, that even on-rails campaigns don't necessarily survive contact with actual play — and, moreover, even when the "plot" pans out as you wanted, the big fictional themes and emotional beats don't always align the way you think they will. So, don't over-promise and don't get your sights set on your idea as the one true way. Be ready to accept "No" for an answer if it turns out nobody wants to jump on the plot-hook grenade.

"The magic" is overrated

Your biggest concern seems to revolve around tipping your hand too much:

But, the disadvantage of doing this, telling them, also dispels some of the magic, and lets them know to be on the lookout for the clues, which could get them on to my ultimate plot far earlier than I intend.

I'm here to tell you: don't worry about it. GMing isn't a great big mystery art. Most players are thoughtful, media-literate, and socially perceptive enough to have at least some grasp of "how the sausage is made" — doubly so if they've ever GMed.

Most of what gets folks excited in fiction isn't surprise, it's payoff. It's like the feeling of a promise being fulfilled. You can flub every single twist and surprise you've mapped out in your head and still have an absolutely amazing game because we're all invested in each other's characters, communicating clearly about what we like, and absolutely jazzed for what we all know is happening next.

In this case, the reason you're really excited about this idea is because of what it builds towards. So, share that excitement with them honestly. You don't have to tell them all the details — most likely, those details will look different in play, anyway — but emphatically get on the same page about what you want to do and why, even if it feels like tipping your hand a bit. Their support and excitement will make executing your idea better, straight-up!

A final admonition

I used to do strongly-GM-led play with a "plot" a lot. And, overwhelmingly, my biggest takeaway, both when it worked and when it didn't, was this:

Regardless of your group dynamic or how much you've prepped, the stuff that's "real" is what happens at the table, not what's in your prep.

Your plans and your notes aren't actually "the story" in the way anyone — even you! — experiences it. Focus on what feels right in play, and don't push with something when the mood of the table is telling you no one will like it.

Maintain communication and engagement and you can easily power through moments of confusion or little thematic misfires. Mess those things up and your vision and the quality of your prep won't matter, because no one (including you!) will be in the right headspace to actually interact with it.

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Then you need to damn the plot secrets and talk with the player and make sure they are OK with it. You don't need to give them details on how it is resolved but they need to know they will be killed and why and that it will be resolved and about how long for that to happen. You should probably discuss taking over an NPC or how to introduce a new character. In fact since this sounds like a planned event you probably should have discussed this very important even before starting the adventure or designed for it to happen to an NPC.

It is fine to if a player character happens to die by bad roll or bad immediate choices(should not have tried to fight the troll myself) but if it is DM fiat it needs to be discussed first. Players need to feel like they have agency over their characters like there decisions matter and if you will take that away they will need warning. You might be able to hint at it in game (dreams involving the demon, animals reacting strange to the character,ect) and build up to a fight with said creature or have the player try to find a a way out, but to just railroad the characters death, especially with little warning makes them feel like what they do does not matter even if You can see the cause and effect.

Rule 1: The plot is irrelevant if the players do not enjoy the game.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I assume "killed" means the character is still alive. In which case I think as part of discussing taking over an NPC or new character I think it would be worth also discussing how long until this character comes back since at that point the Player is effectively going to lose their new character... \$\endgroup\$ – Chris Jan 29 '18 at 9:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ Rule 1: T̶h̶e̶ ̶p̶l̶o̶t Everything is irrelevant if the players do not enjoy the game. \$\endgroup\$ – jpmc26 Jan 30 '18 at 13:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ I definitely agree with telling the player. You can take them aside and "let them in" on the secret, and get their buy-in beforehand. This makes it more interesting for all the players -- the others get to experience the initial shock of the death as well as the later plot reveal, and the person who's "in the know" gets to contribute something meaningful to the game, essentially making a sacrifice for the good of the experience, and have the satisfaction of having a key role in the big reveal. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Lacy Jan 31 '18 at 0:51
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I've experienced this situation (of a PC dying for plot reasons) from two angles - that of a fellow player at the table, and of the player of the PC who is killed. Neither situation was in Shadowrun but I think the same insights can probably be applied. It's important to note that in both examples, the player in question knew about this in advance.

In the first example, our tight-knit adventuring party allowed a fellow member to die because of mistakes during a fight. In-character, we all felt bad about it and mourned him, then at the next week's game we did our best to welcome the new character while staying in character.
The player and the GM had spoken about the possibility of this happening beforehand, and the player already had an idea of a new character to bring into the game. They hadn't told the rest of us about this, though, so for us the 'magic' was definitely still there (i.e. it was still a shock to us all both in- and out-of-character) and made it all the more impressive when that character was later unexpectedly brought back from the dead (a long-term plot point the GM and player had discussed).

In the second example, I knew ahead of time that I would be leaving a game for travel reasons but wanted to leave my options open for returning, so I spoke to the GM and together we came up with a plan for having my character exit the game in an exciting way, which fit with the GM's (still secret to me!) plot. The rest of the players didn't know about this so I think they probably experienced that same feeling of shock and intrigue, and as a player knowing that this was coming and that it might lead to interesting plot in the future (for me or the other players), I felt excited about going through with it.

Because of these experiences, I don't think speaking to your player about this ahead of time will ruin the magic or detract from their excitement and enjoyment of the game - in fact, having a discussion about it where you can both bring ideas to the table might even improve the enjoyment for one or both of you! You don't necessarily have to give away any of your plot - maybe the player will trust you enough if you tell them that you've got something up your sleeve if their character dies. Conversely, maybe they are invested enough in their character that they'll tell you before you do anything, "no I don't want this character to die under any circumstance". Maybe it'll be somewhere in between.
I think a private, two-way discussion with the player is definitely your best option.

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My advice is to be extremely careful about killing characters. Players generally accept a character death if it is due to their miscalculation and the rolls of the dice.

However, when a local GM deliberately targeted a character (like you, for plot reasons), I've seen the entire group of players walk out of a game and never came back. I don't believe that GM was ever welcome at any game in our group, and nobody I knew ever played with him again.

As a GM I don't cause PC deaths unless it is due to bad decisions/luck on the part of their players.

There was one "death" that was arranged between the player and myself. Because this character had a very good reason to fear his enemies tracking her back to her home town, she established her character, several months passed, and when she saw a chance, she brought in her new characters (this was by email, so nobody associated the new character with the old player), and then got her character killed off heroically in such a way the body could not be recovered.

There was one other time I killed a character deliberately, but he had committed murder for fun and was sentenced to die. The rest of the group wanted him out, and I didn't care. At least I made his character's death interesting.

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I thought to myself "don't become a comic book writer if you can't figure out how to bring back characters you kill".

The problem is this will be a profoundly unjust death that will NOT be accepted by the player. You can't armwave that away "for sake of the plot". When a character is killed very wrongly, that tends to give them powerful presence in the spirit world, bound by injustice.

I don't know how your plot will work, but this guy becoming a spirit with volition and ability to influence the story may be the answer to "how do you give this player a good experience if his character is dead".

As discussed by others, group dynamic wise, springing it on him would be a recipe for disaster.

If your plot absolutely requires it be a surprise, then you should have a discussion with the whole group about your philosophy on character deaths, and as part of that, assure them that a plot-driven "GM fiat" character death certainly would be fun, inclusive and not cost them their character sheet. I assume there'll be a rez at some point.

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No, there isn't. My advice is to not do this. Plot-killing a character without their knowledge is poisonous to the entire group. Kill an important NPC or a family member of the player's character, but don't kill the player. It doesn't just hurt the game for the player whose character you are killing, it also ruins the other players' abilities to get invested in their own characters because they can never be sure when you'll do it again.

I have insta-killed a player exactly one time in 20 years of gaming. Because he was (knowingly) left alone with an artifact that a high level wizard wanted. And even then I explained why and offered the option to roll out of it. The players also understood why he was missing when they got back.

Find another way.

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Empower the Player by allowing choice

The death of a long running PC is a major development in the ongoing game and it's going to be quite a negative for the player who created and invested in that PC. Players are going to feel far better about such a drastic change if they are more involved in the demise of their character by it ultimately being as a result of the player's choice.

For example, you don't just single out the player to die and it doesn't really matter what choices they make, they are targeted by a trap or a monster or a magical effect and it doesn't really matter how hard they fight they are doomed. This isn't a very satisfying end to their character, in the plot summary of the game their choices and value judgement doesn't matter. They were just killed off.

Give the player the choice to put themselves into a situation that the player knows is certain death (from talking to the GM) and what the PC at least knows is extremely dangerous, with the idea it will be for a greater cause. I wouldn't make this as drastic as something like Gandalf vs Balrog type of sacrifice as in that scenario Gandalf had to face off against the Balrog or else the party was doomed. Instead a choice where it is an opportunity to develop the plot but if the player refuses to make the choice then the plot just stalls.

It is okay for a character to "refuse the call" and you can make a session about the consequences of their decision to refuse to do the heroic and dangerous (and in this case, fatal) choice. Then give a further opportunity to redeem themselves by giving the same choice again. Though ideally you should construct the scenario where they know the stakes before they make their heroic sacrifice.

By putting the choice in their hands they are far less likely to have resentment against you for "killing off my character". But be careful, if you don't talk to the player before hand and put them in a scenario where they have no real choice then they have every right to feel hard done by.

While we are at it, since you know a PC is going to be deceased well in advance then this is a good opportunity to introduce that player's new PC before the doomed PC dies. Not as a role around the table as that can be just awkward to role play but have NPCs mention the new PC, have impacts of that PC's decisions and abilities impact the game world.

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I see a few red flags. Now, red flags aren't evidence you shouldn't do this, but are evidence you should be cautious.

The first, of course, is planning to kill a player's character for the sake of plot.

The second is the fact you considered just putting them in a death trap. Not "having a death trap" that they could enter; putting them in it.

The third is that, after considering that, you rejected it because they could beat your death trap. If the player's characters are capable of defeating the logical in-game consequences (the death trap), why is that a problem?

I mean, you don't end up with a dead PC. But, if the logical in-world consequence of their deal with the devil is that death trap, and in-world they are capable of avoiding that death-trap, then the consequence of their deal with the devil is ... the PC not dying.

The PC being dead is not a logical in-world consequence; the PC being threatened by thing that could kill the PC is a logical in-world consequence.

Your decision that, regardless of what the players can or do do, that a particular PC will die does not appear unfair, it is unfair. It is "rocks fall, everyone dies".

As a GM, you don't get to unilaterally decide on what happens in an RPG. You can set things up, but if the players decisions are nullified by fiat, they are just listening to a story, not participating in it.

I get that you have a many-advanture payoff you'd love to pull out. And you should keep it available.

Threaten said PC; make it clear that said PC is now marked for death, possibly by starting off with someone trying to kill said PC. For dramatic effect, telegraph said threat; don't have a sniper bullet take the PC out on the first shot, but rather have the first bullet miss or graze the PC. Then start a fight where a bad guy (or set of bad guys) focus on said PC, ideally for understandable reasons (at least on the surface; there may be deeper reasons you keep secret).

That is an in-game consequence of a deal with a devil. A serious, substantial threat, targetted against a particular PC.

Next, make both results interesting. You already have a long-term plan for that PC dying; augment it with a short-term plan to make the death interesting. (Maybe a revenge adventure against the apparent, but not actual, people who killed the PC. An old friend of the PC showing up to help (played by that PC)).

For the PC living, have a short-term and possibly long-term way to make that interesting.

You can also foreshadow it. Either out of character (tell the players "today, the gloves are going to be off, one of your characters may die"). Or even in-character (an orcale states "one of the people in this room will not live to see the sun rise in 7 days"; note that the out is that the oracle herself, or someone else in the room (possibly hidden), will die if none of the PCs do.

It is great to have long term plot plans. Don't force it.

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This is a BAD idea but there are a few ways you can do this with minimal destruction to your game and group:

  • The first and best option is to talk to the player, you can mislead them about the why, and the ultimate direction of the plot but talk to them about the how and get them on your side.

  • Secondly you may be able to manoeuvre the player in question into a "glorious death" scenario, where they get to go out saving the rest of the team. You say the party are pretty resourceful in no-win situations so this may be a non-starter but it could work, especially if you talk to the player beforehand and give them some consideration on their replacement character for going out in style.

  • Third engineer a true no-win situation, there's probably going to be collateral damage on this one though. My favourite one of these (after the fact, we were really not happy at the time) was walking into a warehouse supposedly full of stuffed animals being used to smuggle drugs and finding out the hard way that it was in fact full of shock sensitive explosives, the first firearm miss we rolled killed all the smugglers and half the party, the other half went after Mr Johnson with a vengeance when they found out he knew. One thing that made this a little easier to stomach was that we should have known but we didn't do the 30 seconds worth of legwork to realise there was a problem.

  • Finally and only because this is Shadowrun you might actually be able to get away with taking out a chunk of the party with no warning at all as long as it's immediately clear that this is a dreadful consequence of the party's past indiscretions. In this case the whole idea is that the players, all the players take the attack personally, hit them really hard, at home, while they're sleeping, it should hurt and it should piss them off. YOU DO NOT do this without warning the players that the excrement is going to hit the air circulation device real hard, not if you want to keep the group together.

Given that new piece of information about the Devil's Due, you can just kill the guy out-right on the spot, you've given them all "Borrowed Time" to go with that deal right? You needed to, that's what that trait exists for. So assuming they have that trait you can, while making it very clear that their time is up, kill anyone anywhere and at any time.

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Is there a technique I can use here to diffuse the situation?

There are multiple things you can do. Most of your options fit into 2 categories: 1) Make sure the players can influence the outcome and 2) Use in-game encounters, imagery, sub-plots to lead up to the event. Preferably, do both. These bolded points are essentially the tl;dr version of this answer.

  1. Do not make it feel like the character has zero control over the situation.

"The ceiling collapses and you are completely crushed under literally 10 tons of rock. There is no surviving this. Bob the Valiant is dead."

While something like this is possible, it is never done because of the unspoken rule which is the opposite of the "rule of cool," that is, "If it's way uncool and does nothing but detract from the game, then do not do it." Something that purely and only detracts from the game, making it strictly less fun, should be avoided like the plague.

  1. Give the player choices, even if those choices are very strongly weighted against them.

"If that last encounter, which you fled from, seemed way overpowered that's because it was. Each of you gets a sinking feeling in your gut accompanied by a feeling of impending, foreboding gloom. You cannot quite ascertain the source, but you definitely feel a supernatural force at play, a force of malice in your path ahead. You are sure that the near future will break you if your destiny stays its course. This supernatural premonition leaves you feeling shaken for the rest of the day."

Then line up a bunch of totally overpowered encounters in the characters' very near future. The players then have a decision: stay on this course, or run from their current plot trajectory. For some of the encounters, either just before or just after them, give the group (or maybe 1 or more players specifically) some supernatural visions that foretell death - you could even let the vision show them what they will die from to make sure they realize running from an encounter is a very viable option.

If they run from this encounter, willing to sacrifice plot momentum for their characters, then make sure the visions include glimpses of the demonic force that is exacting its toll on them. That way, the players and their characters realize it might be time to revisit their mistake that led to this consequence, and if they still do nothing to fix that issue then any ensuing death is much harder to argue with.

You could even use GM fiat (unknown to the players) to say that an encounter does not result in death if the characters flee, thus increasing their influence over their situation.

This is still railroaded a bit, but not entirely. It still lets the players feel like they have a lot of influence over their situation, as indeed they do.

If the players realize that they put themselves in this situation and they decide to give in to their previous demonic deal and not try to cheat their way out of it, then you should make every effort to support that, even if it means you have to revisit your cool plot. You might write the story that is "the probable future," but the players help to write the story that actually unfolded. If it were me, and the players were literally between a force of overwhelming forces and a cliff and said "Damn our previous choices! We should not have cheated fate. If only we could go back and fix it." then I would have the demonic barterer appear and offer a way out.

Or maybe even have the demon appear within sight to watch their demise, whether the PCs called it or not (or whether they even realize at this point that it's their fault or not), and if the players are too dense to understand the nuances of what's going on it can make an offer, "Make good on your previous offer and this will all be over!"

  1. Whatever else you do (or not-do), keep giving the players the option to flee. If their characters are doing nothing but fleeing every encounter and essentially are failing at whatever they are doing, they will not likely want to keep doing that.

If they still do not play ball, you could provide some plot hooks to derail them from their current plot and do some other side plots for a while. This could essentially be a form of "laying low" from their previous happenings, doing something elsewhere, where their pursuer does not find them during that time.

If the players flee their entire plot for a while, you could make them feel bad about it by occasionally mentioning some negative side effect it is having on the world. Ex: The players just came from Cityville and are now in Townville, and the NPC spoken to says "Oh, and watch out! I hear demons are afoot. Half of Cityville is burned to the ground and lots of people dead when a demon came through looking for someone." This could continue until the players decide to get back on track with the primary plot.

  1. The death could be in the form of an impending death: perhaps poison, lycanthrope (not everyone survives it), some undead infliction, or just a generic "you will die in 1 week" curse.

This then makes a quest out of it, and the party can all work together to try to save the character. If they fail, then it's not just "You just outright killed him," but rather "We had the opportunity to save our friend and failed." Assuming the failed quest was possible to succeed at; if it was completely impossible then it might not have the intended effect.

  1. You could kill someone close to the party instead of a party member itself. If there are any NPCs that the party really cares about a lot, consider them. And maybe the slaughter will continue if the root cause is not addressed, still possibly reaching the player's character in the end.

  2. If other bad things are happening in the world as a result of the players' characters, perhaps the NPCs do not accept this. If the NPCs connect the dots, that the PCs friend was killed, later half a town was razed by a demon looking for them, eventually the city guard might just arrest the PCs and force them to deal with the root cause of the problem.


Notice that some of these suggestions for diffusing the situation can result in the character death not happening at all. Even if we do not consider the question an "XY problem," still, not actually killing the PC is, strictly speaking, an answer to the question as posed ("a technique to diffuse the situation").

After all, you said this was a result of mistakes the players made in the past that they don't want to fix, so using a good in-game way to influence them to fix their own mess could work. If they need to run away a lot or if everyone hates them (or worse, they become the countryside's most-wanted criminals) because of demonic action, then they have to face an epiphany: "Are we really good guys at all at this point? If we have cheated someone, demonic or not, and if we are willing to let innocent bystanders die for our gain, aren't we now the bad guys?" This is a classic struggle that some heroes have somewhere along the way.

The ideas above do not need to be viewed separately: they can be mixed and matched together, with some of them working quite well combined.

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What i would personally do in that situation would be to either make a trap that has to be disarmed in a particularly manner by a skill that only he has, or give him a strong enough reason to isolate himself from the party and .... well make it a intense final depart like sacrificing for something/someone he does not even really knew, or encountering some final boss wandering.... even being assassinated depending on the story you have.

In worst case scenario you could even "take control" of his character and make it like a cut-scene in a game.

Unless you want to spoil anything the death will and should probably feel a bit unfair, but if the way it is narrated if good enough, your players will not mind it that much as long as you provide to the killed player a alternative to keep playing.

Ways in which I have seen this be implemented are creating a new character and business as usual in which case some thing has to happen to it so that is at least conveniently otherwise occupied or at most turns coat and becomes a mini boss. Another way is taking control of a supporting NPC, or (something that I am thinking of trying in my own game) straight up giving a opposing npc to the control of the player to try to scout for information or simply try to ease future encounters.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE. Please take the tour and visit the help center. (You will get some more badges). That will give you some insights on how this Q&A site is different from a discussion forum. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 28 '18 at 3:26

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