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Last session I DMed, I killed a player's character.

The party wanted to assassinate the main political figure in a town. To inspire general dislike, I made the political figure a racist thug. I run a game with an anything-is-possible mindset. The group believed the assassination would be easy. The party assassinated the political figure during a meeting, yet the party was shocked when, immediately after the assassination, into the room poured a horde of city guardsmen, too many for the PCs even to consider fighting.

Most of the PCs successfully retreated, but one player's character found himself at the end of the initiative order and died in a hail of crossbows bolts.*

The player said I hadn't given his character a chance to escape. I said that I only did what any city guard would have done given the situation.

Should I have allowed the player's character an opportunity to escape despite the character's place in the initiative order not allowing an escape?

* To give the death context: The Town was large with a heavy military presence. It was a very sloppy plan of action. Next to no preparation was put into it. The character that was to be assassinated was heavily guarded. There were three entry ways into the hall, all of which were entered by 8 guards each. I rolled fairly low on the initiative for the three sets of guards but none as low as the character that was killed. The party all made their escape through the various windows, at which point the character was the last option as a target. It should also be noted that he was flying due to being an Aarakocra, which made the crossbows the only form of viable attack. The result was the three sets of guards getting their attack in before he could have escaped.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Don't answer or debate in comments. Also, this question is on the edge of being closed as "too opinion-based" - answers should explain how to make this determination given the group and other factors, not just give your personal opinion on the decision. The couple really good answers are staying my close for the time being. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica May 1 '15 at 15:53
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In an “anything is possible” game, this is fair. In this kind of game, it is necessary for players to actually, truly believe that they can get themselves into so much trouble that they will not have a “final warning” that their PC is about to die, and Death is the most (and often only) effective teacher in this regard.*

And fortunately, players always get another chance at RPG “life” with a new character.

Look at it another way: if you had strained the group's suspension of disbelief to give this player multiple chances to escape after it was obviously dire straits, they would have seen it for the deus ex machina that it is. Swooping in to visibly save the PC after the party made the choice to go in and publicly murder a high-ranking NPC in their stronghold would have only taught them that death is rarely a possible consequence of even the most disastrous choices, because you will always be metaphorically running around underneath them with a safety net. A game with every sharp corner swaddled in soft padding is not an “anything is possible” game.

In fact, this lesson came cheaply: nearly everyone escaped alive, and they learned a valuable lesson: plan your missions! Scout the area, know the escape routes, have an ingress plan and an extraction plan, and failure can easily mean death. This is a lesson they would not have learned otherwise.

In the kind of game you're running, pulling your DM punches does players no favours, because they learn that the world is safe and that you will always pull their fat from the fire. In the kind of game you're running, deaths that can obviously be traced back to a poor decision are immediately valuable to everyone and will improve their skill as players. No player in our modern world knows how to survive in a lethal world of magic and monsters before they start playing in a campaign, and this is really the only way to learn. It's the only way any roleplayer has ever learned how to excel in a high-stakes game.

Yes, it was entirely fair. And in the kind of game you're running, necessary. Next time, they'll be cleverer and be more awesome. Think of it as investing in their future amazingness as heroes — amazingness they will have earned instead of been given.

In a different kind of game, it could have been totally unfair. If anyone tells you that you're being unfair, they're either misunderstanding the kind of game you're running, sufficiently unaware that it's a possible valid play style to recognise it from your description, or just disagreeing on a philosophical level that any group should be encouraged to play in this manner that lots of people find invigoratingly fun and challenging.

All else being equal, of course

Whether death-by-poor-choices can ever be fair is separate from a few other things. Since it's separate, the above considers only fairness with all else being equal.

So, that this is fair does not mean that talking with your players to set expectations isn't still a great idea. An out-of-game discussion about what the game's fundamental challenges are about can deal with the low-hanging conflict-fruit of players just not realising the kind of game you're going to be running. A talk can't truly prepare players who are unfamiliar with this kind of game though, just prepare them to be unprepared, so a talk can't substitute for learning “in the field” by trial and error. (If you didn't have a talk about expectations before starting the campaign, now is the time to check in with your players and have that talk if necessary.)

Nor does it mean that there is never any room for you to increase your skill at GMing and adjudicating these situations as they approach. The players' skill at recognising and exploiting opportunities is gated by your own ability to communicate (with hints or more overt indicators) that such an opportunity exists. That's a skill to hone at every opportunity, especially in self-reflection post-mortem.

All else being equal, it is fair to have PCs die suddenly due to circumstances of their own creation. Allow them to rise to the occasion and make sure you are rising to the occasion, and you'll maximise the empowerment and fun that is possible in a game that is wide open to anything the players want to try to do, whether clever or ill-considered.

* As opposed to, for example, a Participationist or Illusionist game, in which other concerns take priority in the GM's decision process.

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As the GM, you have the burden of considering the game, not just the moment. Believing you don't have a choice, as indicated by saying:

"...I only did what any city guard would have done given the situation."

smacks of "My Guy" syndrome, and is something you need to watch out for, since you're responsible for a lot of "guys".

As GM's, we all develop various bags of tricks to manage the story as played out under the rules. In this particular case, where it seems that the next logical step is to kill a PC, you need to recognize as many possible outcomes as you can before choosing. For example:

  1. The guards kill the PC. Depending on the type of game, this may be fine. Some games have high attrition and the players understand that the world is a harsh place. However, the phrasing of your question implies that's not the case here.
  2. The PC escapes. This is typically the players preference, but if you have to get heavy handed and bend the rules or include elements that overly stretch the players' imagination, it can damage both the suspension of disbelief and/or make the players' feel like their actions aren't as important as your decisions. Clearly a slippery slope, so this also sounds like a less than ideal solution.
  3. The guards give the PC a chance to surrender. This happens all the time in TV, movies, and books. Here's where mastery of the system rules helps. Rather than firing on their turn, the guards can ready an action, as in "If he moves, kill him." Also, as you consider the post-combat actions of the guards, remember that they will want to track down those who have escaped. Having a prisoner to question will help, so they, or at least whomever is in command, should be considering this. (And, if at this point the PC chooses the certain death route, they've basically given you the green light to off them.)
  4. The guards kill the PC, but that's not the end. Again, this is setting dependent, but in a large town with these kind of resources, expect them to have access to advanced clerical services. As I mentioned in (3), they'll need info to go after the others, so this PC may very well find themselves raised from the dead in a prison cell.

TL:DR

The real question is: "Was killing him and letting that result stand forever my only option". To which the answer is "No." As the GM, if you feel you only have one option, you're probably too close to the problem. Back up and think through the problem from different points of view. Remember that NPC's/monsters don't necesarily want to kill the PCs outright, so look for alterntive motives and actions that support them.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer is close to what I was going for. It deserves a +1 for raising the question about wether it was really the most sensible thing to do. Also for giving an option on how to undo the death in-universe. \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 Apr 30 '15 at 21:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree that "my guy" syndrome is a risk but I don't see anything in the OP post that smacks of it. "My guy" syndrome involves being a jerk because "my guy" is a jerk. The guards's response is not what "my guy" would do - its what "every guy" would do. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Apr 30 '15 at 23:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DaleM - This seems like a text book case of "my guy" syndrome according to the highest voted answer on the question specifically asking what "my guy" syndrome is which makes no mention of it being specific to being a jerk. \$\endgroup\$ – RyanfaeScotland Jul 9 at 11:45
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Given your answers in the comments, then I see your actions as more than fair...

Your players did not take the Opportunity to scout/recon the area -- though they had the opportunity.

You gave them time to 'notice' that there was a response to their assassination action -- the fact that they took too long to decide to escape wasn't your fault.

That the character who died had a crappy initiative score...well that's the way the dice rolled. And, true ... any guardsman, seeing his patron dead and a perpetrator, if not the main one, attempting to flee (and being the only one left), would MORE THAN LIKELY decide to perforate said assailant with crossbow bolts...

You 'according to the rules' gave them an equal opportunity to escape - just they blew it. And, they knew the type of game you were running and that this possibility COULD occur...

Of course, you COULD, give the player a rude awakening...he's not dead (any more) -- but, he's now a captive in the political figures follower's dungeon -- who are suitably "upset" at him and really want him to help find the rest of the assassins. (and the rest of the party gets wind of this fact...) Setting up the possibility of rescue (or not, depending on your paranoia level)

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There were three entry ways into the hall all of which were entered by 8 guards each. I rolled fairly low on the initiative for the three sets of guards but none as low as the character that was killed. The party all made their escape through the various windows at which point the character was the last option as a target.

If the players had the opportunity to be aware of this then what occurred is fair. This is supported by the fact you went as far to figure the normal features of the building like windows. A locale detail of critical importance when in case a plan went sours.

For this encounter to be consider the following minimum had to occur.

  • As the party entered the building you described the fact there was 8 guards at the entrance.
  • That there was three other entrances to the room
  • The other details of the room, like windows, doors, people locations.

If you did all three then it was a fair encounter. It on the players if the other 16 guards were a surprise. They should have checked out the other entrances and determined if there was any guards there before executing their plan.

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This situation is only fair if the party was given the opportunities to know about and react to the threat. The party could have had knowledge of the strength of the city guard before going to the meeting. They should have had an opportunity to notice the city guard in the adjacent rooms. Everyone should have had at least one initiative round to escape.

It's important for this style of play that either the characters get themselves into trouble or fail to escape a potentially revealed trouble before "anything can happen". The players need to be given the opportunities required by the game rules to avoid or know about the trouble. Only when they dismiss or fail those opportunities should they meet sudden death. It's fun to be one perception check away from certain doom; it's not fun to be denied the perception check.

Researching

If the party researched either the meeting place or the political figure they should have known that the political figure was heavily guarded. Based on the size of a town in the dungeon master's guide (6000 people) and a couple dozen guards, half a percent of the town's population was employed as city guards in the specific role of sitting outside the room the main political figure is in. The party's experiences that evoked their dislike and uncovered the political figure's racism and thuggishness could have revealed this level of paranoia. The party would have a reason to suspect that an unusually strong and immediate response to the assassination was possible before going to the meeting. A character using the Investigation skill or Persuasion to extract information is attempting this research.

A party that invested time in this research would then have a chance to know to prepare to deal with an unusually numerous force. This preparation could involve mundane purchases, such a ball bearings or caltrops, or choosing spells to prepare for the day.

For this situation to be fair the party needed to pass on the research (or alternatively scouting). As a DM, you have no obligation to point out that this research is possible unless there are new players in the group that aren't aware of it.

Perception

8 guards moving around or assembling in each of the two adjacent rooms is noisy, the characters should have been given an opportunity to observe this noise before the guards entered the room. The guards were able to observe the noise of the party despite the intervening wall; the party should have been given the (significantly more difficult) opportunity to notice the noise of the guards despite the intervening wall.

Use the passive Wisdom (Perception) scores of the characters to determine whether anyone in the group notices a hidden threat.

For this situation to be fair the party needed to be given the opportunity to notice these additional forces.

Initiative

The time between when the guards are outside the room and when the guards are in the room is extremely important to the characters. To fill the room with guards without giving the characters a time to react is unfair. Initiative should have started with the guards outside the room. At this point, the characters should be as aware of the noise of the guards outside the room as the guards are aware of the noise of the characters inside the room. The time it takes for the guards to come into the room should have given each character at least one initiative round to escape.

For this situation to be fair the characters needed to be allowed to act in the same round the guards used to move into the room (unless the guards can make the move to walk into the room and the action to load and fire their crossbows in a single round).

If the party had all of those opportunities and didn't take advantage of them, it is fair for "anything to happen" to them including character death.

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    \$\begingroup\$ maybe the signs were there and the players missed the signals or failed rolls to detect them? if the PC were surprised, then all the guards moving into the room could have been done on a surprise round and then the initiative issue is still a concern. there is not enough information/background for the game, players, and the social contract to draw any definite conclusions about 'fairness'. \$\endgroup\$ – Colin D Apr 30 '15 at 15:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the answer but I would like to clarify that the group was invited to the meeting by the political figure. They did know there were guards standing outside the entrance that they had entered by. As for the other two entrances they took no actions towards gathering that kind of information. I also did start with the guard's initiative outside of the room, the party just took that long to decide to make their escape. \$\endgroup\$ – Grimmcrow Apr 30 '15 at 16:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Grimmcrow It sounds like you gave them the opportunity to escape, but they delayed too long & the opportunity was lost (for that one PC) \$\endgroup\$ – Adeptus May 1 '15 at 0:08
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I'm actually going to take an opposing stance compared to most other answers and say that you should have given the player a chance to flee. Here is my reasoning for it:

Initiative and turn order are a way to abstract the story using mechanics. Obviously, nobody thinks that everyone stands still and waits for whoever is currently up in the initiative to complete their turn before taking an action. Story-wise, everything that happens during a turn happens more or less simultaneously. Thinking of it that way, there is really no reason why that PC could not have fled with his companions when the guards stormed in.

Sure, you could say that the initiative represents how quickly the character reacts to the guards appearing, but at that point you are basically getting into "save or die" territory on a roll. That is an inherently un-fun situation, which should be obvious since your player is upset about what happened. In a scene like this, when the whole party agrees that they aren't looking for a fight, I would declare combat over and go back to a looser interpretation of what can happen in a round.

That's not to say that you shouldn't make things interesting. Have everyone make a Reflex save to see if they can get out of the room before taking a hit or two. Failing a roll should have some sort of consequence, but I think that dying is almost never an acceptable outcome. Death is boring, and nobody wants to play a boring game.

Other people have also mentioned the whole "My Guy" aspect of this scenario, which I also kind of disagree with. I personally don't think that City Guards should act nearly as vicious and bloodthirsty as they are usually portrayed. There are plenty of non-lethal options they could use to subdue a suspect. Blunted crossbow bolts, nets, truncheons. Guards should enforce peace, not perform executions.

Which actually leads to my final point. Depending on how you personally feel about this situation, it'd be simple enough to bring that PC back into the game. Everyone else in the party had already escaped so supposedly none of them actually know what happened. Maybe the guards really did use non-lethal means and instead of killing the PC they just captured him. Now you can have the rest of the party find out and come up with some sort of jailbreak, or have the actual PC find a way to bust out on his own.

Of course, that depends on whether or not you want to keep the PC's death canon. If you are okay leaving things the way they are, have that player roll up a new char and get on with the game. But if you're on the fence, and that player would rather keep that char, then there is literally nothing stopping you from changing things to work out.

Remember, realism may be important, but nothing trumps having fun.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The guards all focus-firing on the "only PC left behind" is a break in realism caused by the initiative system's granularity. The PCs fled: saying "one stood still and waited for guards after they started fleeing" is a bit ... off. Having every guard only see the one PC who was "slowest", and fire in sync at that one target also doesn't work well. The guards would storm in, see what happened, prepare to shoot, and shoot: having them all only see and aim at the one target who "never moved" is an artifact, not common sense. \$\endgroup\$ – Yakk May 1 '15 at 18:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ My point exactly. At a certain point DMs need to set the rules aside and go back to telling a story. The mechanics are only there to provide a framework, not lock you into certain actions \$\endgroup\$ – D.Spetz May 1 '15 at 18:31
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With 24 crossbows trained on him, that initiative roll in effect was a save against death. It's always harsh to announce "a lethal threat has arrived: if you miss your roll you're dead".

But if that's the tone of the game he agreed to play, and especially if they had opportunities to anticipate and evade the threat before it got so close to being lethal, then it's probably fair. If you've genuinely surprised the group by revealing that "anything is possible" means, "one mistake and you're dead", then it might be too harsh. The danger is that surprising the group makes them less likely to do anything risky in character, because they can't "trust" the game world to tolerate a slapdash approach. The future of your game is hours of intensely realistic recon and planning. But if that's the game you all want he doesn't really have a complaint.

On the basis of realism I'd slightly question the outcome that 8 people all came through a doorway and took a shot before he had a turn (times three doors simultaneously), but them's the rules. He likely wouldn't complain if the same rules gave him the drop and a 1-round kill on some hapless BBEG. In fact, one round before he took advantage of the fact that in this game, surprise + superior firepower = instakill, when they killed the political figure!

Personally I'd stretch a rule if necessary to allow someone to surrender before their proper turn in a situation like that. Then at least he couldn't say he had no chance to save himself. Extricating him from custody should be first on the other PCs' order of business ;-) But again, them's the rules.

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    \$\begingroup\$ To be fair, the situation described appeared to involve more than one mistake. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 1 '15 at 17:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ This mostly makes sense, but I'm also reluctant to upvote due to the assertion that the players made "one mistake". \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon May 2 '15 at 1:02
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I'm not entirely sure what happened here.

  1. PCs are in combat, they assassinate some dude
  2. Roll for initiative
  3. All PCs but one use their initiative to escape, Guards use their initiative to burst into the room
  4. Roll for initiative
  5. Guards get to go first, kill the PC

If that is what happened, fine. PC deserved it.

From the way you described it though, the guards practically teleported into the room instantly. Were they all literally standing outside the door waiting to burst in? I would guess not, and that they were strewn about on the other side of the entry way. I find it hard to believe that they were all in a position to make it into the room in one turn, never mind make it into the room simultaneously, take aim, and fire. You don't walk around with your crossbow under tension, did the guards even take the time to load? Once the meeting started, they were probably slacking off, there were no guards IN the chamber, so they weren't concerned with people sneaking in, and in the central meeting rooms, they would usually have plenty of time to get ready if the outside was attacked.

Were the guards aware of some form impending danger? IOW, were they on high alert? Was the assassination part of a prolonged battle? If not, I would expect the guards to suffer a round of surprise.

tl;dr Unless there is a very good reason as to why it happened, I really don't see how they could rush into a new room, asses the situation, take aim, and fire, all while the guy is standing there twiddling his thumbs. If this were an FPS, I'd say your guards were hacking. They basically pre-fired and walled the guy.

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