Right to Die

It seems only fair that if I do a post about killing players, I should do a post about player’s right to control their character. Just as it is the DM’s right to kill the players when they decide to kill the king in the middle of his throne room, it is the player’s right to try. Whether you’re playing a pen and paper or video game, the PC is the player’s only method of interacting with the world around them, and you cannot take that away from them. This isn’t to say that their characters can’t be forced to do things they don’t want to do, but the player has to be the one that does it. Kidnapping, extortion, blackmail, and even guilt tripping can give a player motivation to do something he doesn’t want to, but it must be his choice. A good way to think about it is “keep it first person”. Games like Bioshock, anything from Valve, and even most Call of Duty titles have pivotal moments that reach out to the player because they happen under player control. In Modern Warfare One, YOU die of radiation, not some random soldier, just as every Valve game cut-scene is performed with you still in control of your character. It is even admissible to mind control a player in some fashion (as long as you roll for it), but make sure the player is still in control of the character. Bioshock is a good example of forcing a player to do things he wouldn’t actually want to, but never taking away control.

But this is a digression from the point I was making, which is the player’s right to break things. It’s been said that players hate the railroading, but it’s more correct to say players hate obvious railroad tracks. And this is understandable, as the DM is trying to impose their ideas on the players story, however necessary that is. The player is allowed to buck the tracks as much as they can, in an equal degree of severity to the amount of railroading. Let’s say a player needs to go into a room to talk to an important NPC. If a large man pushes you into a room, break out the window and flee. If, on the other hand, a small man mentions that there is free cake in the room, go inside and grab a slice. The DM can do their story either way, but the player gets a better deal if he got to choose. I talked last week about the detriments of killing quest givers, but the player has the right to try, especially if it makes sense to them. A Crimelord hands the player a gun and tells him to kill a rival in exchange for his family’s safe return? Shoot the Crimelord and roll them into a ditch. If the DM didn’t see that coming, it’s their own fault. King sending you on another suicide mission? Fireball the throne and leg it. You might even get away with it if you can escape before the DM manages to come to terms with what you did. I understand that these are hard to escape in video games, where the game designer cannot plan for every contingency, but the easy rule of thumb is to have a plan for every NPC the players can kill.

The player’s most important right, however, is the right of suicide. A PC, being the only thing a player can control in a game, is also the only thing a player can be sure to destroy when they need revenge. When the DM has committed some completely unjust act, such as saving the day again with their precious DM PC, the players have the right to kill themselves in any way they can. Often, this involves attacking whoever just wronged them in game, which almost always means death. Sometimes they don’t have a plan beyond charging the throne and taking as many with them as they can. Sometimes they just turn on each other, and the party descends into madness and bloodshed. Whatever they do, a good DM will take note of what caused it and discuss it with the players later, when cooler heads have prevailed.

How to kill a player.

So I was talking to my brother earlier today, and he asked me a question, one every Dungeon Master, Storyteller, or Game Master needs to have an answer to. What happen when your players decide to off the quest-giver? Some of you will have to deal with this constantly, with the perpetually meandering party who takes your carefully scripted campaigns and perforates them until all semblance of plot has drained into the muck, and some of you just have that one player with the character sheet no one is allowed to look at who’s totally not playing an assassin this time guys, for real.

Regardless, at some point in your life, the players are going to lob a fireball at the king, stab the kindly old mayor in the neck, or pull pistols on the crime lord. And you are absolutely not going to be expecting it. So, back to the original question, what do you do?

First things first, you give them an out. Always drop the “Are you sure?” when the players have decided they’re going to do something that will get them killed. If your players are half as smart as their characters, they’ll at the very least think twice before offing that guy. They’ll probably still try it, especially if they’re new, but you gave them an out, so your hands are clean now.

Second, make them roll for it. If they’re trying this sort of thing, they probably just rolled out of fighter college and think they’re top dog, and their chances of pulling this off are ludicrously low. They can take their shot, but they have to earn it. Plus, if they botch it, no harm done. Have them get beaten by guards, throw them in jail for the night, fine them, but you can get back to the important business of making your players dance for your amusement.

Third, let’s say they pull it off, or near enough. The rogue crossbowed the king in the eye, the little psycho whose mom you owe a favor threw a satchel charge at the president, or they snuck a disassembled LAW rocket into the crime lord’s mansion. Now you’re in a bind, because they cannot be allowed to get away with this, but you can’t listen to your first instinct and just drop rocks on them until they die. This leads to angry players who never want to play with you again. Of course you’re still going to kill them, mind, just not that blatantly. If your important plot person had bodyguards, this step is pretty easy. Roll some dice behind your screen (you better have a screen, even if it’s just a binder), and then tell them the guards killed them. If the important and now deceased NPC didn’t have any guards (what’s wrong with you? You put a defenseless NPC next to the players?) then you need to have someone nearby who can call the guards. City, military, royal, whatever, somebody yells for them and the players get killed.

That’ll learn ’em! Remember, give them an out, and roll enough dice that it seems legitimate when they die. And maybe next time they won’t be so stupid.