Tired of the status quo? As a GM, you have many powerful tools at your disposal to shake up the campaign. Here at the Front, I suggest that one of the most powerful of these is the death of a NPC.
NPCs are the supporting characters, both tiny and mighty, who shape the world and keep it spinning. To the PCs, the role of the NPC is to make the game world click. And the death of one of these characters can have surprising impact if done right.
A minor character’s death is a potential story lead. The characters may be hired to investigate (or their curiosity might be piqued), and depending on how deep you want the rabbit hole to go, it may expose the PCs to a vast conspiracy that may need dealing with.
Think through the implications of the following:
- A person known for running a soup kitchen for the downtrodden is found dead. Looks like it was a mugging gone wrong, so the city watch/police doesn’t investigate. And yet, why would a someone mug (and then kill) a person known for helping those down on their luck?
- A rival wizard’s familiar gets killed. You don’t think much of it, until you hear that it was third familiar killed this month.
- A favorite tavern’s barkeep was found dead after closing. And although foul play is suspected, there are no obvious leads.
By themselves, these deaths don’t mean much, but depending on what the PCs decide to (or not to) do, each could have implications for future stories. Using the middle one as an example, what happens if the PCs decide to investigate and find the parties responsible for killing off familiars? It could very well change the relationship with their rival. And if they don’t investigate, what happens when it is one of their own PCs’ familiars that gets killed?
Another category of deaths is what happens when an adversary dies but not at the hands of the party. The party, if they hear of it, rejoices — well, until they figure out that something worse has taken the adversary’s place. Perhaps his boss was unhappy with the underling’s repeated failures at the hands of the PCs. The new minion elevated to the position is definitely going to be very hands on about resolving the thorn in his boss’ side.
Then there are the celebrity-type deaths. Everyone knows of the famous bard Amadeus … well, did you hear that a jealous husband took off his head in a duel? How about the Queen’s brother who died under mysterious circumstances? I hear his mistress was found and fed to the animals in the pits. (If you pick someone famous enough, the resulting power vacuum can set the stage for many changes over a long time in the campaign. The King is dead! Long live The King!)
And yes, you can really hit the players hard if you pick the right NPC. Nothing disrupts a campaign like the death of a mentor or a close friend. Suddenly the characters feel very vulnerable because it isn’t someone they’d never met or a throwaway NPC… it is someone who has probably made a number of appearances within the campaign that is suddenly gone.
So those are just a few ideas that the power of an NPCs death might have and how you might use it to further your campaign in new and exciting ways. How has the death of a NPC impacted a campaign that you have been in?
One of the trickier things to handle in a campaign is a player’s character death. Over many years of roleplaying, I’ve had my share of character deaths. Not being a computer game, there is no reload/respawn point for the character. If the system has it set up, you can get the character resurrected from the cold embrace of Death. If not, well the player is just out of luck and on to the next character.
Here at the Forged Front, that train of thought trivializes the character’s death. Let’s face it, if you have invested a lot of time and energy into the character it’s a huge blow when your character dies. It was a friend/companion and even if it will be back as soon as the party figures out how to cart the body over to the nearest temple to get raised, there is a bit of downtime to the game. More importantly, the odds are the death impacts its player’s connection to the character.
I have a friend who loved playing the Doom series back in the day. He got really into the game — save for the level that he died a lot on. Sure, he eventually got past the level, but he did it at the expense of not being as immersed in the game as before he hit that level. At some level, you stop empathizing with your character’s plight when the character repeatedly gets killed. If that was a RPG campaign, the GM has two choices … either work hard to get the player to re-engage emotionally on the campaign, or just ignore it and let it sort itself out.
I maintain that the latter option tends to downgrade the player’s enthusiasm for the campaign. What was great is now merely good. Why? Well, for starters, the GM just proved that the character isn’t central to the story for a period of time. Sure the character came back, but the suspension of belief — having the player really hang on to everything the character is doing is disrupted. Now instead of just getting back on the horse, there is a bit of doubt as to how much the player should emotionally invest in the story and his character’s role in it.
Character death is even more brutal in a system that doesn’t have resurrection in it. Even if the GM allows the player a quick re-entry with a character of roughly equivalent power level, the new character is basically starting at ground zero with the player’s emotional attachment to it. So on some level, the player just isn’t as attached to the plight of their character as they previously was. Don’t believe me? What would your reaction be like if your character was in A Game of Thrones and was on the wrong end of the Red Wedding? You spent all this time investing in a character and its tale ended in disaster and death. Would you immediately attach to a new character added to the story after that event like the one that you were beforehand?
With all this said, I have been in plenty of campaigns where death is cheap and happens a lot. In games that tend to be like this, the players tend to distance themselves from their characters a bit just to shield themselves. If possible, they might try to find alternate solutions to problems other than combat, but if forced to fight the big adversaries of the moment, they have to be ready to accept the character might soon be dead.
As a player, I like to bond with my character. It makes me feel more a part of the story. As a GM, I like to have my players do that as well because the story is very important to me and why I started the campaign in the first place. That doesn’t mean that is the only way. Sometimes on the Front, it is just a good day to die.
What’s your preference around player characters and their mortality within a campaign?
A GM wears many hats in most typical campaigns. Among their varied responsibilities are setting the scenes, creating the adversaries, keeping the world in motion, and adjudicating challenges the protagonists face. However, the players, in the Forged Front’s opinion, are the most important part of the whole equation… they are the main stars. Without the . . . → Read More: Gamer… Engage!
Belief is an interesting thing. In the name of religion, countless conflicts have occurred across the ages. The Forged Front asserts that you don’t even need to look that deeply to name conflicts or cultures that were shaped to a large extent by religion. For instance, take a look at the Vikings or better yet, . . . → Read More: The Value of Belief
Ever hit that point where you just need to take a break from it all? Here at the Forged Front, that happens from time to time. However, in a campaign though, it is a matter of taste and what you want to accomplish.
Various systems have tried to capture the essence of what could happen . . . → Read More: The Art of Downtime
Last week in part 1 we talked about a few of the broad brush strokes of the campaign. Let’s keep going on that front…
The Far East — the Jade Empire and its Rainbow Court. This was the least fleshed out by me for my original campaigns, but it was envisioned to bring classic Chinese, . . . → Read More: The 50000 Foot View, Part 2
Yesterday we started chatting with Joe Sweeney of StoryWeaver Games on a variety of topics… (You can read Part 1 here.) What do you think about continuing that now?
Joe the GM!
Q: What are the keys to exploring the world of horror at the game table without sacrificing sanity to the Old . . . → Read More: Interview: The Wizard of Oz (AUS) – Joe Sweeney from StoryWeaver Games, Part 2
It’s been a long while since I’ve had an opportunity for an interview! Thankfully, Joe Sweeney of StoryWeaver Games was kind enough to subject himself to a few questions about his gaming career, StoryWeaver, and more…
So let’s get started! (Note that this interview was SO HUGE I had to break it up into two . . . → Read More: Interview: The Wizard of Oz (AUS) – Joe Sweeney from StoryWeaver Games, Part 1
Welcome back to the Front.
Last week in Framing the Picture, I discussed different options that a GM can use to get the players up to speed on the same page. So let’s look at the last fantasy world I shared with various players. For this exercise, I haven’t decided which area is going to . . . → Read More: The 50000 Foot View, Part 1