Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Fate Worse than Character Death

If you play tabletop roleplaying games long enough, your character is going to die. If you're lucky, you'll have an awesome, memorable, fitting, or and even heroic death. If you're not lucky, the dice will shit on you till you choke on it and then leave your battered, stinking corpse for the carrion birds. 

But you know what? That's OK. It's part of the game. Most gamers figure that out pretty quickly and learn to roll with dice punches. Some players become rather irate at character death, even outright pissed off or angry at the DM/GM/Judge/Dude Behind the Screen. Those players are not often the most fun to game with and you probably want to avoid them.

But you know what's worse than death at the table? Hold Person. Sleep. Imprisonment.

I've never seen players get more frustrated at a table than the moment when their character (and by extension them) are removed from the action completely and utterly. They can't move. They can't speak. They can't use any of their class abilities. 

And you know what? That shit genuinely sucks and those players have a right to be a bit pissed off. Not "swearing at the DM and throwing a fit at the table" pissed off, but more "passive-aggressive sigh" pissed off.

Why do these things piss players off so much, often more so than character death?

It boils down to one thing: Agency.

Players want to play. If their character dies, they can still roll up someone new and jump back in the action. But if they're locked by a Hold Person spell they have to just sit their and do nothing. The ideas start flowing, and the player starts to think about what they would do if they could participate. But they can't. They can't play the game. They're reduced to being a spectator.

What's worse is they're a spectator who invested time, effort, and in most cases, money in participating in the game - in being part of the action. The job of the DM is to allow that, encourage that, to facilitate participation. If the player and their character can't participate, then what's the point? I think some modules and adventures forget that, as do some DMs and even some players.

I'm not saying to never throw a Hold Person at your players - I'm saying don't chronically shackle your players - literally or figuratively. This is the reason I'm not a fan of adventures like Scourge of the Slave Lords or Out of the Abyss. They limit agency right off the bad. Players might feel screwed from the get-go. Always, always, always, make sure your players are able to play their characters, feel awesome, and make use of their abilities.


  1. I think the situations you listed are another reason followers and/or hirelings were traditionally such an integral part of the game. Add in the numerous save or die possibilities of old school games, and it again illustrates the wisdom of having alternate characters to switch to when your main is incapacitated.
    Of course I don't know of many games that utilize a retinue of said extra characters. It's extra work for the players and possibly overwhelming for the DM as well.
    There must be a way to strike a happy balance between keeping a game deadly (and therefore exciting) and less frustrating at the same time. I myself find more modern versions of rpgs to be too "marshmallowy", but as a player as well as a DM I realize how annoying it is to have to sit out of the fun for a real time half hour or more when your character is taken out somehow.

    1. My first thought was "henchmen!" and my second thought was of running more than one PC. Looks like you beat me to it :)


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