Players are way too good at getting themselves killed for me ever to get an opportunity.
Oh, boy, here we go.
I ran a Dungeon World game this past weekend, and I was forced to break one of my unspoken rules; never let a character die if it’s their player’s first game with us.
I typically don’t handhold in my games; I just say things like they are as I let the narrative dictate most of the consequences or narrative moves made. It makes it so that when bad things happen, there is always a reason and it always makes sense to everyone at the table. It helps to remove any idea that GM fiat might be involved and keeps things honest.
But my hands were tied this time.
There was nothing I could do.
The party got spotted by a bunch of baddies and tried to hide as they approached.
The player failed the roll to hide.
So after getting attacked, he tried to fight it back and push it off.
The player failed the roll to save his hide.
Then he tried to attack it and drive it off.
He failed to attack it, losing his eye in the scuffle.
Then the party tried to help by pulling the horrific slug raptor off of him.
They failed their rolls to save him.
Cue his Black Gate and Last Breath roll.
I tried to shift the camera to the others more, but all the rolls made to try to save him were failures. It was brutal.
But I don’t feel bad for his character getting killed. I just feel bad for him because it’s his first game with our group.
When the narrative says you die, you die. It’s that simple, but it is hard every single time a character eats it. I get attached to the characters in my games just as much as the players, so seeing one fall gets to me. Should I feel responsible for their demise? No. If I pulled some GM bullshit and deus ex machina style save their asses with a GM PC or some other D&D bullshit, the game would suffer as a whole and tone would be shattered and near unrecoverable. My players show up to play a game in a dangerous yet fascinating world, so who am I to fuck that up?
You, as the GM, should never feel like you killed a character. If you do, then fix yourself. Players tend to put themselves in risky but cool as fuck situations because they want to be badasses. Sometimes they bite off more than they can chew, though, putting themselves in bad spots. This is what kills characters. Player decisions lead sometimes lead them down a path they didn’t intend to take, and sometimes they can’t recover. As long as you are open with your players and make sure they have all the info available to make informed decisions, it should never feel like your fault if a character falls while trying to be a big damn hero.
I never try to shy away from character death, though, as it is essential to a healthy game narrative. Whenever a character falls, I always use it as a way to get people invested in the narrative by using death to create more drama. People eat that shit up. God knows I do! Death doesn’t have to be a bad thing, as long as you always use it to improve your game.
Oh, one last thing: In Dungeon World, there is always a way to come back. It is always costly and dangerous, but there is still a way. If the party wants, they can undertake the dangerous, character changing process of saving one of their own. These are easily my favorite sessions in any story arch. I love making them into mini adventures.
All in all, GMs should never kill their players, as the players will always be way better at it.
Hope y’all got something out of this!
– Rusty, the DM