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I have been DMing a game for a group of friends. In between two sessions, which ended with them facing a few enemy NPCs, I realized that these intelligent opponents had a very good way to kill one of the player characters and that logically they would probably attempt it.

I am not sure whether or not I should have them take this opportunity, seeing as how the player is rather invested in his character. Admittedly, the character is only level 3, so it's not unreasonable for him to roll another character, but this is his first, plus he has a rather engaging backstory that I don't want to leave hanging.

Should I hold back and potentially have it come across as unrealistic or should I have the NPCs try to kill the character and likely succeed, and potentially disappoint my friend?

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When I as a DM have an opportunity to make a major change to a character, such as character death, conversion to a villain or non-villainous NPC, etc, I will bring up the issue with the player. It means you can't surprise them, but by asking their opinion and inviting their input on the idea, you can not only find out whether they will accept/enjoy the change, but also get additional ideas for ways to improve the change.

A few examples: A player was playing twins, one of whom was rather... homicidal. I realized that one of my NPCs would very much want that twin on his team. So I spoke to the player privately between sessions, to see how he would feel and how his character might react to a proposition from the NPC. He was thrilled by the idea, offering several suggestions for how his character could work as a villain from within the party for a time before converting completely. His character ended up becoming a miniboss for heroic tier.

Another player ended up being the Bearer of the Holy MacGuffin for the plot - the character responsible for carrying the items that the villains wanted. I warned him (both in and out of game) that this made him a target for the villains, and that they would focus their attention on killing him. His response was "bring it on!"

By talking to your player out of game about your plans, with as much or as little detail as you're comfortable with, you can gauge their reaction to your idea. If they're totally, completely opposed, you should probably change your plans, since your goal as a DM is to ensure the game is fun for all your players. However, my experience has been that, given enough information to feel that they're "in on it", players will generally treat such plans as a challenge to overcome or as a story component to expand upon and play with.

Players like to have choices, and like to feel that they can influence the plot and change their own destiny. Offer them this opportunity, and they will rarely be upset.

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    \$\begingroup\$ At the VERY least, have someone warn the player/character that this could be fatal... give them a chance to make preparations (whether that be a new character, or the current one trying to survive). That said, I really like what you have to say, thatgirldm. Perfect answer to this question. \$\endgroup\$ – Aviose Jun 17 '14 at 16:04
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This is, or should be, a part of your groups "Social Contract." There are different ways of handling this.

Different groups have different attitudes towards character death. In many of the games I GM, I assure the players that there is essentially no such thing as permanent character death. In D&D there are opportunities for raising the dead. In other systems, I assure them that Deus Ex will keep the character alive. Of course, that doesn't mean there won't be consequences for a loss, but the character will have the opportunity to survive. This helps them them get more invested in the character, the backstory, and the connections to others. In the games I GM, which tend to be fairly plot and interaction heavy and somewhat combat light, this works well. Characters of course have chances for "heroic sacrifices", but those are normally precoordinated when the player is leaving/wants a new character.

In other games, players might be perfectly fine with a character dying to what you might consider the hazards of the profession. Death to a trap, death in combat, are fairly well expected and that is just how the dice fall. This is very common in combat-heavy games and many players will be fine with it.

But then there are cases where the GM seems to be targeting a character to set them up for death or at least setting challenges so high the PCs have little chance. Some players really are up for that kind of thing in harsh environments with grim odds. But that kind of thing really should be laid out up front and the GM should know it might make players less inclined to get really invested in plot or that character.

In short, the way you do it is to talk to the players, as a group, about what level of mortality they want (vote if necessary). If they do not want PC death at all then you probably shouldn't do it. If they want want the risks of adventuring, go ahead with your plan but make sure it feels in character for the NPC and then make sure there is some possibility of escape (whether they succeed in escaping or not depends on how well they play and how the dice fall). Only if they are OK with a high mortality environment should you back them into corners.

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    \$\begingroup\$ social contracts are great, as it spells out not only the expected character mortality, but any sorts of content (torture, sexuality) that the group is not comfortable encountering. \$\endgroup\$ – Pulsehead Feb 20 '13 at 19:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is an excellent answer, I would like to add to it what works well for groups I have run. After the table talk you mentioned and everyone heads home, I open private threads with each player where I can provide world details that will help them build a character that fits the world. I also ask them directly if they are comfortable with character death, loss of limbs, permanent damage, etc... This method lets me keep dramatic things as more of a surprise, while being sure of everyone's reaction ahead of time. \$\endgroup\$ – Calvin Smith Dec 1 '16 at 16:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good answer. I'd also add that for social contracts with young or inexperienced players, allowing players a limited bank of "Get out of jail free" cards or dice rerolls per game (which can be read as divine intervention) might be handy to avoid premature player deaths. Another option is to permit players to sacrifice XPs or forgo leveling up in exchange for letting the character survive. \$\endgroup\$ – RobertF Dec 2 '16 at 18:09
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There are some players who will never take a character death well. The only way to find out if your friend is one of those players is to kill his character.

Regarding the opportunity you realized, is it something the NPCs could also realize? If you're making your NPCs metagame in order to kill off a certain PC, I think the player will be more justified in being angry. For instance, if some random thugs just happen to be carrying kryptonite and just happen to find a way to use it in the middle of a combat with Superman, that seems a little metagamey to me. But if it's something the NPCs could reasonably figure out without GM assistance, I think it's fair game.

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My advice to you is to only kill characters in the following cases:

A. The PCs make stupid decisions, then they should pay for them. Example: A party decends into a dungeon that is rumored to be home to a very powerful spell caster, the characters decend without taking any of the proper precautions or are obviously outmatched (and the characters know this yet still go on) then they deserve whatever they get.

B.The death of character serves a purpose within the context of the story. Example: The character discovers a dark secret from the past about the Duke so the Duke hires a group of assassins to KILL the character. Which logically might happen.

C.The characters have a stroke of bad luck with the dice. Example: A Fighter misses five reflex saves against five different fireball attacks, letting the fighter live just doesn't make sense. Use this at your own discretion.

If the party is up against intelligent beings who are of a malevolent nature and would logically want a character dead then it makes sense for these beings to ATTEMPT to kill this character, but if the PC finds a way out don't kill him anyways. Your example, I think falls into category B.

As far as a Player not taking character death maturely you should be ok. If your playing with mature people you should be fine (most of the time), just don't make it seem like your out to get the player and roll out in the open (attack rolls at least) so everyone knows its fair play.

I find that if there is no real threat of death the game is a lot less fun, it's like playing a video game on god mode with no chance of ever losing yeah it's fun in the beginning but it does get old fast.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Be really careful with A. Estabilishing such an attitude could mean "if you happen to die it's because you are a stupid." to the players. Be sure you discuss with them what this means. \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel Feb 21 '13 at 18:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zachiel It's appropriate for some play styles (sandboxes; old-school campaigns), and inappropriate for others (story games; Big GM Plot campaigns). \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 21 '13 at 20:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie I'm not saying it can't be done (even if any game that punishes me when someone else thinks I'm doing a stupid thing is not a game I'd have fun with) just that it's a potential time-bomb for most players. \$\endgroup\$ – Zachiel Feb 21 '13 at 21:26
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Personally I would not kill this character. DMing is storytelling, and IMO killing off a low level party member just because a random NPC "would do it" does not make for a good story.

I have seen too many weak encounters that are just not fun for the players based on a "realistic" worldview where the powerful NPCs would just do something that seemed sensible to the DM. Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story.

This does not mean you can't threaten or kill party members; just make it part of the story and be fair about it. And of course always react to player actions.

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This will sound like some of the other responses so far, but to sum it up, the rule of thumb is this: The DM does not kill characters, players get their characters killed.

In your specific scenario I would say how they got here should weigh pretty heavily in how you proceed. If this was just the natural progression of your adventure and they're meeting these baddies at an appropriate time at an appropriate level, to outright kill off this character would be bad form, and that's a little bit on you the DM for putting him in an unwinnable situation. With that said, you should still have the NPCs attempt it, but give the player some outs. Let him see that they are targeting him and he will likely die but then a crate falls and explodes and he has a chance to run or hide, or as the NPC sneaks through the shadows it spooks a donkey and the player is alerted to the danger and can respond in some way. Obviously the less cop-out, the better. You don't want to set a precedent that every time the party gets in trouble a freak earthquake will occur and save them. But I'm sure you get what I'm driving at. The path of action for survival can be as narrow as you like (and of course be open to them coming up with something clever of their own), but it needs to exist in an obvious enough way that the "blame of death" can be pegged to the player if indeed the character dies. That crate exploded. He could have run. He chose to stay. That was honorable for him to help his party like that, but it did cost him his life.

Conversely, if the players have been haphazardly moving about kicking down doors and blowing up towers, disregarding warnings or signs that they might be biting off more than they can chew, I would argue you almost need to kill the character off. D&D loses much of it's allure for both DM and players if the players feel invincible. They have to feel/know that there actions matter, and that's a two way street. If they foil some villain, but his death machine still destroys a town, that's immensely disappointing... why are they even playing? Clearly this is a scripted story and they're just written into it. But similarly, if some level 2 characters learn that an Ancient Red Dragon lairs nearby and decide they want to go loot it..... well, that was dumb, and that decision should have tangible consequences.

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One thing I did when I saw a PC death as very likely was to put it into story context. In this case, it was a PC that both I and the player really liked, and this character dying would be a real loss. I played that up. I set up the adventure with some premonitions about dramatic upcoming events (it's rare to be able to do a good premonition type thing effectively as a DM just because of player unpredictability). I set up a very dramatic scenario where a lot of things that I knew were very important to the PC (and player) were at stake, and then staged a "noble sacrifice" type battle where the game session came to a climax as the player decided whether or not to face certain death but save those most important to them, or run away and betray their own code of honor.

In the event, the player nobly sacrificed the PC and people were actually moved to tears during the game session.

The point is; I framed that entire adventure around the dramatic climax of the self-sacrificing battle, and everyone followed along, even knowing that the character was going to die, because the story was so compelling. It was probably the best role playing session I was ever part of.

My advice: If you do pull the trigger and really try to kill off the PC, frame it, put that PC up on a bit of a pedestal from a narrative perspective. Really give everyone reasons to like them AND give them good reasons to be in the fight, and make that death dramatic and important. The story payoff can be enormous. You also have a guaranteed hook for future games as players seek revenge, so definitely keep the antagonist who did the deed around for later!

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There are many excellent answers here that tackle how to deal with killing a character. I do not see any addressing this:

Should I hold back and potentially have it come across as unrealistic or should I have the NPCs try to kill the character and likely succeed, and potentially disappoint my friend?

I think you should do your cool idea, but plan it in a way that the players will very likely overcome it.

For example, if the enemy might poison the NPCs:

  • The NPCs go to a supper and one of the patrons is looking sickly, drop hints and hope they catch the poison.
  • If they don't catch the poison and ingest it, instead of killing them, they wake up in rags in a dungeon and they're being questioned by thugs.
  • Big Boss might be busy with something important going on elsewhere so his thugs are doing the questioning and the NPCs can escape.
  • Etc...

My point here is that you control the entire world and the players don't know what was planned and how you change it. If you have a cool idea, but you know Big Boss would decimate the players if they did it themselves, come up with a contextual reason for Big Boss to send a lackey instead of going themselves.

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Make the player want his character to die. Provide a particularly heroic context like sacrificing himself to save the group.

Then bring him back undead.

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protected by Oblivious Sage Jan 11 '18 at 20:01

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