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I hope someone can give me a good answer to my question: In my campaign there is a NPC, an important NPC. But for story reasons they should die. I want to do this in a big fight (with the NPC helping the heroes). I always work with dice (for attacks, defense, and so forth).

What should I do if the NPC survives until the end of the fight? Should I simply narrate and say: "The fight is ending, but the last goblin looks up and uses the last of his strength to shoot an arrow from his bow...the NPC falls to the ground", or should I use the dice and give the NPC the chance to stay alive?

Why am I asking this? I think it is wrong to handle such things without dice because I always use dice. And I don't want to play the game like a video game. But the NPC's death is important for the story...

How do you handle such things?

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    \$\begingroup\$ is it your adventure or is a prewritten one that is hard to revise? \$\endgroup\$
    – John
    Commented Jan 9 at 0:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ Remember, this is D&D, and these are players. If you kill someone they care about, you can expect them to use some spell or gimmick like Counterspell, Spare the Dying, Resurrection, True Resurrection, Reincarnation, Wish, etc, or entirely drop the plot and take up the new quest to find someone who can. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 10 at 7:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DewiMorgan Indeed! I played a high-level cleric in one game where the plot had a war between two nations. At the end of the climactic battle, we discovered that the paladin king and his gold dragon mount had both been killed in the fighting. One Miracle later, we had a "happier ever after" ending instead of the bittersweet "war won...but at what cost?" ending. \$\endgroup\$
    – Brian
    Commented Jan 10 at 16:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ One thing I like doing as GM is deciding that one of two things is going to happen. Either NPC is going to die, or the Amulet of Power is going to get stolen by the goblins, both of which progress the Evil Scheme. Both have consequences, and I'm going to push hard for one of them to happen. That way, if the players gather around "no, we'll never let NPC die!", I don't have to say "too bad! he dies anyways", I can give them the success of saving NPC, and still have a known outcome to plan around. Not always applicable, but useful for when you want something to happen. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kaia
    Commented Jan 10 at 19:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ Tabletop RPGs are improv, not a single linear narrative. You can't really write things out like this because you, the DM, are not the only one writing the story. The DM lays out the setting and plays half the characters, and the story writes itself. \$\endgroup\$
    – Beefster
    Commented Jan 11 at 17:44

6 Answers 6

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Do not remove player agency

The big difference between an authored story and a roleplaying game in simplistic terms is that:

  • In an authored story, the author decides on the actions and consequences of all characters.
  • In a roleplaying game, the gamemaster describes the situation, the players describe their reaction to the situation and the gamemaster adjudicates the outcome.

Players (mostly) play in order to affect the outcome of the game. If you, as GM, rule that "the story happens this way regardless" then you remove their agency. In the same way that you should never rely on even powerful NPCs surviving hostile attention from PCs (to misquote Arnie in Predator "if it has stats, I can kill it") you should never rely on PCs failing to protect or save a friendly NPC. You can stack the odds against them, especially if the doomed NPC has some particular vulnerability, but do not just write the outcome so the players' had no purpose in participating in the battle. (One of the worst adventure plots I keep seeing is "the PCs are hired to bodyguard NPC X who is killed early in the adventure". When the players have spent lots of time figuring out how to keep NPC X alive this devalues all the effort they expended.)

If the NPC has to die then make it happen "offscreen" and they either reach the scene of the battle/murder/accident too late and/or hear about it from a surviving NPC. (Always let a surviving NPC relay any dramatic final words, since PCs will reasonably argue that if a dying character has time to say anything more than "Ooops!" that they should have been able to use healing magic.) Note that "offscreen" can be in the next room, so long as there is a reasonable way to isolate the doomed NPC in that room without making the players' decisions meaningless. It's generally easy to lure PCs into being somewhere else if you dangle something shiny in a different direction.

In summary, if you are able to manage an outcome where the NPC lives (on this occasion) then trust in the dice and plot-justified stacking of the odds. If you must have the NPC die then keep the PCs out of the action.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thx for your good description for this! \$\endgroup\$
    – Flo
    Commented Jan 9 at 7:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ 17 sessions later. All PCs are dead. The NPC is still alive. There is only one question: whyyyyyy? \$\endgroup\$
    – DonQuiKong
    Commented Jan 9 at 17:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ The only time I had fun with "the PCs are hired to bodyguard NPC X who is killed early in the adventure" trope was when we got there and he was already dead. +1 for killing offscreen, it totally works. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Commented Jan 9 at 21:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Our DM once threw an NPC who was "supposed" to die. He had an affliction that we had no way to fix. The paladin used her necklace of prayer beads to cast Planar Ally and offered the necklace itself (which was at the time more valuable in both practical and monetary terms than the rest of the party's possessions put together) as payment to have the summoned angel cure the NPC. The DM had to take the week after that session to rewrite a lot of things. (And in character, a time-traveling NPC informed us that we had substantially altered the future.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 10 at 1:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ The scripted BS is why my brother lost 2 IRL days of BG gameplay because he didn't want to sleep and save due to plot advancing during the night. Nobody likes to be railroaded. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 10 at 14:40
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Do it offscreen OR prepare for the possibility of the NPC surviving

This question reminds me a lot of another one from some time ago - the DM wanted an NPC kidnapped in a fight, the players almost managed to save her, he pulled some gotcha by having monsters come out of the water IIRC and grab the NPC and the question was (paraphrasing) "The players are all upset and I don't know why, how do I fix this?".

The point of this story is that players don't like having their agency taken away, making them think their actions matter when it later turns out they didn't never ends up well.

If you really, absolutely need this PC dead because the story can't go on otherwise, don't give the PCs illusion that they can prevent the death. Your idea of

The fight endings, but the last goblin looks up and uses the last of his strength to shoot an arrow from his crossbow... the NPC falls to the ground

is going to feel INCREDIBLY cheap to the players and they will not be happy to find out they have spent the last half an hour (in real time) fighting in what was essentially a cutscene. If you want to handle this in a real fight with dice, you need to prepare a way forward with the NPC surviving.

If you really, absolutely can't continue your campaign without this NPC dying, do it so that there is no illusion PCs can change things - have them murdered while the party is somewhere else, too far away to get there in time, etc.

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Talk to your players.

The other suggestions are great and I think you should consider if any of them apply and if you really need this character to die in this fight.

But if the situation is "I want this character to die, I don't want there to be a chance of them surviving, and I don't want my pesky characters to resurrect them", then tell your players that and get their buy-in. Get them to be excited about the death, and excited to try and stop it as characters even as they know it's unstoppable as players. I'd most often use this in specific and narrow situations, like:

  • It's the first session and I want to start with an impactful death that spurs the party to adventure.
  • The character is inconvenient to the story (too strong, knows too much), and the players agree that it's disrupting our fun.
  • The players and I are trying to play a more "railroad-y" game intentionally. (For instance, if I've been working on miniatures for a big set-piece battle to end the campaign, and things need to happen to get us to that set-piece battle.)

How to tell them:

  • Directly: "Hey guys, my idea for this campaign is that there's this powerful wizard, and you're his apprentices, and at the start of the campaign he dies."
  • Narratively, then directly: "You notice that Abrom has a blackened, claw-shaped burn on his arm, and he winces as he sees you notice it. You know he's been touched by the mark of doom--that the devils have claimed him as their own. I'm gonna be straight with you guys: no matter what you do, Abrom is not making it out of this next adventure. But the circumstances under which he dies, and what his death means for the world? That's for us to find out."

"Tabletop RPGs are..."

I want to push back on something that got mentioned a lot in the comments and other answers, which is that tabletop RPGs "are" or "are about" something, often about letting the dice or the table decide the story.

I don't think this is true. Tabletop RPGs are about whatever your table wants them to be about. Most of us with experience in TTRPGs have some expectations going in and it's usually more fun if we're all on the same page. But on a fundamental level, there's no rule that says a tabletop game can't be railroaded, or can't have certain fixed outcomes. If you're on the same page with your table, you can do anything you want to.

As a simple example, in The Quiet Year, it's a certainty that at the end of the year the Frost Shepherds will arrive, ending the game. The players and dice cannot prevent this. This question is tagged dnd5e, so I don't think it's wrong to say that D&D wants you to leave outcomes up to the players and the dice, but in the end, you're playing with your table, not the judgemental spirit of Hasbro and Gygax.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Underrated answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – fectin
    Commented Jan 10 at 23:35
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Contrary to the other answers, I don't think the question of whether the NPC dies "onscreen" or "offscreen" is nearly as important as the question of whether the player is rewarded for having kept the NPC alive. Even a cheap "end of battle surprise attack" death could be made satisfying via something like:

As the party is focusing its attacks on the last kobold that's attacking them, one of the seemingly-dead goblins pulls out a Magical Macguffin and uses it to slay Fnodor. Your party has no difficulty dispatching the goblin, but in so doing discovers a that the Macguffin had been wrapped in a Superior Scroll of Secrets, which would otherwise have gone unnoticed. This scroll contains a map of the nearby village, with a few locations conspicuously marked.

Here, the player's efforts to keep Fnodor alive might not have been rewarded by success in that objective, but nonetheless pay off with whatever reward the DM might hide in the locations marked on the map.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "... The players need to find this map and the NPC needs to die. That's what I calll a win-win situation." \$\endgroup\$
    – Edheldil
    Commented Jan 9 at 16:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've done this, in cases where something absolutely must happen for the game to proceed. It's one thing to say "anything that is predetermined in any way removed player agency"; it's another entirely to redo all the planning that just got invalidated. Try to avoid such cases, but if you can't, just be honest with the players that something needs to happen a certain way if they don't want the session to end early so you can replan everything, but give them a bonus for having beaten the odds. They'll understand (especially the ones who have DMed, themselves). \$\endgroup\$
    – Ray
    Commented Jan 9 at 20:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ray: If you literally tell the players that, at some tables with some beloved NPCs I could imagine they'd decide they want the NPC to live, and are willing to do something else for the rest of this session's time if necessary! Like play cards, or a quick board game, or just go home. They'll accept that you didn't plan for this outcome and need time to figure out what happens next, and that this moment is too important to just improvise for the rest of the session. But sure I could see it going the other way and players accepting you tipping the scales with an NPC that's not beloved. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 10 at 8:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this is gonna go over terribly, will feel like a cheap gotcha and worse, will push players to focus on every "seemingly dead" enemy in every future combat, to make sure that it is "really dead" and that you're not trying to pull another gotcha. \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    Commented Jan 10 at 10:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AnnaAG: If players were to start engaging in such tactics, the DM should explain that the death of the NPC was inevitable, and that the map was a reward for keeping the NPC alive absolutely as long as possible. \$\endgroup\$
    – supercat
    Commented Jan 10 at 17:54
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Don't build Stories. Build Trees.

"For important story reasons this NPC needs to die" means you are building a story. A story that you, as a DM, wrote.

But a good TTRPG story isn't a story the DM wrote. It is a story that the DM and players created out of gameplay.

Some DMs improvise nearly everything - but you want to create a story and have an idea of where things are going. That is ok! But instead of a story, I suggest you build a Tree of Stories.

In a story, you have A following B following C. But in a story tree, you have A or B following C. Anything of importance -- an NPC dying, a battle being won, a city being overrun, whatever -- should have an alternative path.

This will fundamentally limit how far out you can write your story tree, because the number of branches grows exponentially with distance.

An Example

Here is a linear story:

  1. PCs are recruited to save the lost prince
  2. Old lady tells PCs fortunes, gives cryptic advice (each PC gets a d20 they can use later on to replace a roll)
  3. PCs defeat goblins who have lost prince captured
  4. Prince is killed during escape
  5. Queen goes mad with grief, cursing the kingdom
  6. Old lady offers path to save kingdom
  7. PCs cure curse

Now, we'll build a tree

  1. PCs are offered to save the prince

2a. PCs accept, go on adventure. PCs pass Old Lady offering to tell their fortune.

2b. PCs reject, are banished from kingdom. PCs pass Old Lady offering to tell their fortune.

3a. PCs get fortune told. Cryptic. d20 rolled, they can use it later.

3b. Old Lady curses (Cryptic) PCs and disappears. d20 rolled, can be applied later.

4a. PCs fight goblins to save Prince.

4b. PCs fight cursed minions of kingdom.

5a. Prince dies in escape.

5b. Prince survives escape.

5c. Prince rally's goblins against curse.

5d. Cursed Prince rally's goblins against world.

6a. Queen goes mad with grief, cursing kingdom.

6b. Queen sacrifices Prince to gain power, becomes Lich

6c. Prince slays Queen, claims her power.

6d. Prince fights Queen, is slain.

6e. Prince claims Queen's source of power, flees.

6f. PCs kill Prince and Queen, claim source of power.

7a. New Dark Lord arises. All worship them, and despair.

7b. Old Lady reappears, offers solution to curse

7c. Players roll new characters, opposing their old ones

7d. Opposing cursed monarchs attempt to woo PCs to their side

7e. Greater problem from outside arises, making the curse seem to be worth the price

By the time I hit 7 steps away from the original story, things could have gone in very different direction. The ideas I'm sketching out can just be to ensure I have some idea where the story could go.

I can create these brief story nodes, and sketch rough lines between them as possible paths the story can go in. Sometimes things would loop back to an "earlier generation" situation, and that is ok.

The core part of the tree isn't that it is anywhere close to complete, it is that there is some depth to every choice, and everything is a branch. I don't decide if the prince dies on the way back from rescue at the goblins! I leave both possibilities open, and ensure they are both interesting.

This means I can set up the fight so that everything tries to kill the Prince; I don't have to pull punches, because both branches of the story are roughly equally as interesting.

Include foreshadowing

Now, one thing that a linear story can do is foreshadow. But you can do the same with a tree - the trick is, foreshadowing should be vague. You can foreshadow any node that is possibly in the story's future. You can keep track of your foreshadows and recycle them with new nodes as the opportunity arises.

So that Old Lady can say "two crowns, one chair, a rose with a bloody thorn" as part of her prophesy, that could be forshadowing for the battle between the Prince and Queen, the external threat that makes the existing curse seem trivial, the PCs rising up against the monarch, or a bunch of other stuff.

Or the Queen could have a stuffed copy of the prince she fawns over but also yells at. What exactly that is foreshadowing is quite flexible.

When you make the foreshadowing happen you should have at least 1 node in mind, but you should also keep the foreshadowing noted and if not fulfilled, when you need a new story node planned you can pull it out and use it as inspiration.

A good D&D campaign should surprise the DM

Sure, we all have an epic story we want to tell. But keep that for a novel! The epic story of a TTRPG should be told in the clash of chance and chaos between the PCs and the DM, not planned out before hand.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Should 3b start with "PC's refuse to have their fortunes told"? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Commented Jan 11 at 20:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt I'm trying to label events, not transitions between events. Refusing to get your fortune told is one way to reach 3b, but maybe something makes it happen when they do get their fortune told. In some cases the transitions are obvious, or I included them, but if you make transitions separate you can reuse "old" nodes with a loop-back from another branch. Like, I might decide the old lady is actually only on one path out of the kingdom, and have other nodes on the other side... or I could make the old lady be on all paths out of the kingdom. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yakk
    Commented Jan 11 at 21:09
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In my campaign there is a NPC, an important NPC. But for story reasons they should die.

I get it. Your story needs drama. For some reason keeping this one NPC alive further will compromise the rest of the story. Maybe the NPC trivialises some of the upcoming problems that the adventuring party needs to overcome. Or maybe a well placed tragedy is exactly the story beat that will hook your players for the rest of the campaign.

I want to do this in a big fight.

Of course you do. How else could you impact the players at such a personal level. They will see the death up close and have personal impact on the situation. You dont shove the climax behind closed doors, or tell them of screen that something really important just happened. You put them in their arms. Let them speak their final words. Hear their last breath.

So we want a cool fight with a really impactful death. Let’s see what we can do to make this happen without making it a cutscene and robbing the players from their game.

First, lets talk about player agency. Everything the players can and want to affect, they should be able to. If, for some reason, the players only objective during this fight is to keep the NPC alive and safe then we are setting them up for failure. So we need to distract them. Make the fight about more than staying alive and killing the foes. They should have a bigger purpose than keeping the NPC alive. They could be stopping a wizards dangerous ritual, stealing the MacGuffin of Doom, or avoiding the collapse of a bridge. Distract them with more pressing matters than babysitting a NPC. And when they are distracted, you strike. Then they can also have success in the encounter, even if it comes with the cost of their friend.

How is this not taking away the players agency? Because we have provided them with a choice. They could focus their effort on accomplishing an objective, or focus on being safe and loose the objective. And their choice had consequences. It mattered. And if you want to guide your players towards a certain option, weigh the alternatives such.

What if they choose the safe option? Dont forget that your NPC have their own voice in this conflict. Let them be the hero that sacrifices their life for the greater good. Let them jump in front of an arrow ment for a child. Let them try to accomplish this objective at great risk, when all the adventurers have lost their moral.

But this is just railroading with extra steps.. Yes.

And that is a good thing. If you want to tell a certain story, then some amount of railroading is needed. When starting a campaign you dont let the players avoid the goblin ambush. You put them directly in the path of it, because that is the conflict you need to kickstart the story. If you let the players avoid everything you need to tell your story, then they are playing a different game. Dont get me wrong, sandbox games can be great. But you and the players should be on the same page about what type of game you are playing. And if you want to tell a specific story, then at some points you need to control fate. And as you said, the NPC’s death is important for the story. Just let your players know, in case there are miscommunication about what type of game you are playing.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ focusing on the objective or on being safe is not really a choice at all. If your party wants to focus on being safe, they stay in a tavern the whole month and you have no game to play. If you want to control fate, don't give the party the illusion they can control it, plenty of people tried it and it doesn't go down well. \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    Commented Jan 10 at 16:30

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