Death and the act of killing a player character in roleplaying games is a controversial subject. The players are quite rightfully protective about their characters but even when not considering about their opinions about the death of a PC the hardest part of such an event is in the hands of the GM.
In my past I have shied away from killing the characters. As a teenager I tended to make all of my rolls in secrecy so I could always fudge the result to keep a character just barely alive. Later on I made the decision of making my rolls open so that the dice would decide wether the character survives or not. But lately (once again thanks to the AWengine) I have had to scrutinise my thinking.
The death of a player character could be easily compared to a death of a main character in a TV-show (when playing a campaign). Even with most recent tv-shows killing of main characters just for kicks the death of one could cause a major catastrophe. Most PCs are involved in the central plot of the campaign and taking them out of the equation might foil all plans the players and the GM have had.
In out most recent games I have tackled this subject actually quite many times. Thinking back to them I can actually justify most of the character death I have caused. Not because the players made the wrong moves or very too careless but because most of those deaths have supported the narrative.
With hack’n’slash campaigns it is a presumption that the characters will die. Even with Cthulhu that might be the case. But nevertheless the players rarely are prepared for the death of their character. This makes it a hard bargain for a GM.
Should a character meet his/her end without reaching his/her goal(s)?
Most games do not enhance the meaning of a personal goal for characters but usually the group effort to tackle the big bad of a campaign can be one (including “boss fights” as well as any big resolution the campaign aims for). And if a player has come up with personal detail about his/her character and his/her goals in the gaming world it might be that GM hesitates to “make a move” to kill that character.
I know that I have in some games taken advantage of this. I have tried to make my character memorable, with definite goals so that a GM would hesitate to kill that him. I enjoy to the feeling of reaching goals and creating a personal narrative inside the “story of the party”.
After GMing with AWengine I have realised that “being a fan of the characters” means that sometimes you have to “kill your darlings”. It doesn’t just mean the NPCs but the PCs as well. But the most important factor behind the decision of killing a PC revolves around the timing.
In the games I have ran in past couple of years I have killed more PCs than in all those years before being introduce to AWengine. This has more to do with the fact that I have only recently understood the responsibilities of a GM. I realise that many players do not agree with my point of view but it has been an important lesson for me anyway. As GM I guide the flow of the story and if I want to keep the players on the edge and run a campaign where character death is possible I have to have the nerve to act when the timing is right.
I could always hide behind the rolls made by the players. Or judge the outcomes in a way that the players survive. With AWengine it would be more than easy. But I have found out that picking up on how and when characters need to end their story arch is more simple than I have thought.
Usually the timing comes from the players. When you can read them and see when they are on the edge and excited to find out what is going to happen you can begin to plan a right way to exit a character. In most cases the opportunity presents itself in a way most players are familiar with from other forms of entertainment.
Maybe one of the characters wanders of by him-/herself, confronts a clearly superior enemy or acts in a way that just calls out for trouble.
Sometimes it might even be that one of the characters is acting out in a way that calls for intervention. Maybe the player is expecting for the character to die in a blaze of glory and maybe that could serve the narrative. But when the timing is right you have to have a reason, a meaning for the death of the character.
While GMing I tend to follow the impressions given by the players. Do they still have something more to do with their character or are they lost with him/her? In some cases a death of another character might fuel their fire and turn them into a much deeper character. Or in some cases they just do not have anything to offer for the campaign.
I’m not saying that you should be killing characters that are just following the group around. In some cases these characters can shine when given right amount of spotlight. But it might be fruitful to think about what their death would mean for the whole structure of the campaign.
As a common example we could think about the Boromir from Lord of the Rings (as I suspect that there will be no spoilers for anyone here). He had a clear mission and a goal and he still died before reaching it. He died in a meaningful way but his dead also allowed the Fellowship to split up and take different actions than they would have quite likely have taken if he would have survived. His death also gave the impression that none of the Fellowship were safe and thus increased the suspension. If Tolkien (being the GM here) had allowed him to survive the whole story would have worked out in a different way. It might even have been more interesting. Who knows. But the main effect here was that the death acted as a catalyst for other interesting events.
I’m not saying that each character death should be a meaningful one. In fact meaningless deaths can sometimes cause even more interesting options. The main point behind this long ramble is that you should not be afraid to kill your darlings!