Dirk the Daring, an expert at many many deaths …

There are many ways for a party of PCs to get wiped out. As the Game Master, you potentially have an unlimited budget of powers and creatures to bear down on even the most epic characters.

But then, we don’t.*


Game Balance has been around for a couple of decades and even was baked into the origins of early RPGs by their wargame roots. Early Gygaxian philosophy was all about the PCs facing the risk of dying every encounter if they didn’t play it smart or accidentally wandered into the wrong encounter and didn’t flee. Current game approach for most mainstream games seem to favour the heroes (a.k.a. the PCs) surviving the entire campaign and telling a story. Being wiped out in a random woodlands encounter or by a stray arrow doesn’t really fit that narrative, in RPGs and most novels (Game of Thrones being almost an exception, but really, did they off any of the real main characters before the final book?). If all the PCs have this plot armour, do they really get that adrenaline rush of being pushed to the brink and possible death? If not, then why are we even playing this game?

That is the Question …

Depending on the system and world setting, death might not even be that big a consequence. Access to magic or immediate aid or even a dip in the bacta tank might be enough to bring back a beloved character. Thus, is death’s sting removed (often along with a hefty chunk of coin to pay for it) and it hearkens back to just shoving more coins into the arcade machine for your hero to make it to the next encounter.

Warrior needs quarters er um food badly!

But if the whole party dies, then who will pick up the quest? Does it erase all the progress up to this point? And what of the emotional investment in those characters? It’s hard enough getting a replacement character to fit into the PC party at the best of times (Gee, what are the odds – yet another rescued captive prisoner that happens to have skills that the party needs …), Will a Total Party Kill gut your game before that final climatic battle, with little to no connective tissue between the Big Bad and the PCs?

Better question yet, did those PCs get a death worthy of them? It’s become a standard question at our table – what sort of death or end do you want for your character? It sets a bar for the sort of encounter that might bring their arc to a close. These might be the stories of heroic self sacrifice, of revenge served, redemption for the guilty, or lifelong quest fulfilled. Or its the opportunity for a player to start up a new character idea for the game (it might be a death or simply retiring once the princess is rescued even if the day has yet to be saved). I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a powerful death as the fuel for another to take up the cause, as the death of Sturm Brightblade inspired others to the War of the Lances (The Chronicles of Dragonlance). I’m not saying kill those PCs, but if you wind up in the situation, make it count by giving them satisfaction or with a twist of the knife that gives the remaining party all the more reason to see this adventure to the end.

A coward dies a thousand deaths, the hero dies but one …

If it’s a one shot game to be finished in a 4 – 6 hours at your table, losing that PC in the first five minutes of game with no back up character sucks. Losing them in the final battle is tragic but a much better story. Keep a cast of back up characters for a player to pick up so that they can remain as part of the game (or generate a replacement during a break). This is supposed to be a fun social experience, not Lord of the Flies.

So what can we as GMs do to our player characters as consequences for their actions that carry more weight then the threat of character death? I’ve got a few ideas to share soon …

*Maybe you do unleash the full fury available to you because it’s that sort of game and there is a tacit understanding that this is a meat grinder that will mercilessly rip through characters (Tomb of Horrors) or that’s a part of the game system itself (Dungeon Crawl Classics, Paranoia). But for right now, let’s focus on the standard Heroic Campaign.