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Tabletop Takeaways: Take the Shot Even if it Means Character Death!

Found on Paizo Blog

Flying High

Our resident halfling, Barnaby Daryngton, flies up to the terrifying form of a hulking wendigo, an elk-like beast known for causing bouts of serious psychosis. Barnaby takes a MASSIVE hit via an attack from opportunity to get up in the wendigo’s business, leaving him exposed to a retaliatory strike. But, as one of the party’s most effective damage dealers, he knows that only the threat of his scimitar will expedite the wendigo’s demise.

The powerful wizard Fyn casts invisibility on Barnaby in a hope that it will give him enough time to escape the wendigo’s ire and get some much-needed healing. Unfortunately, the wendigo possesses blindsight and can still see Barnaby.

That’s where we ended the session, on the wendigo’s turn, poised to swing a second time at Barnaby. With a week between sessions, I had quite the length of time to ponder the wendigo’s next move.

Wendigo by Paizo
A wendigo. Nearly as terrifying as a Hodag.

As written, the wendigo in this particular adventure uses their flight as an advantage, scooping up PCs and dropping them from deadly heights. Barnaby was already flying, so he would be immune to such a maneuver. Fobias, the tenacious half-orc ranger/druid, would be the likely target to be dropped from two hundred feet up.

On the other hand, I knew that the wendigo had just succeeded on that devastating attack on Barnaby. By my estimation, his HP was low. I’m talking REALLY LOW. At high level play in tabletop games, it can be rare to get a cohesive party down below half-health without the benefit of a critical strike.

This was a rare opportunity to make the party experience their first player death in about a year of real-life time. All I had to do was have the wendigo conduct a full-round attack action at Barnaby.

And that’s exactly what I decided to do.

Now, just like the well-respected Glass Cannon podcast, our table utilizes a bottlecap system. When players do something especially creative or conduct an excellent bit of roleplay, they are awarded ‘bottlecaps’ that they can use for advantage on a roll, or to give the GM disadvantage on a roll.

I’m blessed to have a table of awesome players who earn their fair share of bottlecaps. So as the wendigo begins their full-round attack, every single swing gets a bottlecap. This results in a single hit actually connecting, leaving Barnaby at single-digit hit points.

As luck would have it, our heroes can’t kill the wendigo in the turn that follows, and Barnaby is once again subject to another full-round attack. The reserve of bottlecaps is depleted, and Barnaby is permanently dead.

After a brief moment of silence before finishing off the wendigo, the party immediately begins preparing for a reincarnation spell. An impromptu narrative involving Barnaby’s deceased lover meeting his soul in Pharasma’s Boneyard later, Barnaby reincarnates as an elf.

The Takeaway

Some tables of Pathfinder, Dungeons and Dragons, or other tabletop games rarely deal with character death, while others are a veritable meat grinder that churns out new characters like a run of Darkest Dungeon.

When it comes to my decision to hit Barnaby with everything I had or do something else that would be fun, I went with the former. Why? I don’t like to frame the table with a vibe that pits the Gamemaster versus the players. Rather, I like to revel in the players’ successes, and cry over their failures. For that reason, I don’t necessarily take joy in killing off characters.

At the same time, however, I am a firm believer that the threat of character death and actual instances of character death can create some of the most memorable moments in the games. All week long, the players were worried and anxious for what might happen to Barnaby. They knew what was on the table, so when I announced the full-round attack action, they pulled all the stops to try and save their beloved friend.

Every single roll of that attack mattered. You could feel the tension between each roll, and with each bottlecap that was pooled together to keep the wendigo from their goal. Some of the bottlecaps negated hits but there was one that completely turned a critical threat in a straight-up miss. The players’ excitement just continued to build until the wendigo’s turn was over and they breathed a collective sigh of relief.

In these games, we roll so many dice that individual rolls hardly seem to carry much weight. That feeling is only heightened when you reach higher level play and players have three or four attacks in a turn. Dice are just tossed around willy-nilly, and misses blend in with the hits so that players just become numb to it all.

So, to see the players hanging on my every word as the digital dice tumbled across Roll 20 was awesome. There were tangible stakes, complete with the false sense of victory when the first full-round attack was thwarted. Despite their best efforts, Barnaby still falls, invisible, landing in the snow bank below.

The decision to attack a character, KNOWING that a single good hit will knock them down, is a difficult one to make as a GM. People become attached to their characters, who are a part of this incredible story that the table crafts around them. By threatening to take that away, it can feel like you’re really threatening the player instead of the character.

But I’m really glad that I did. This turned into one of the best sessions I’ve ever had the privilege of playing. It had everything: a harrowing combat, an against-the-odds survival, a 180-degree character death, top-notch roleplay, and the first actual use of player reincarnation in a game I’ve been a part of.

What started out as something I was afraid of doing turned into a something incredible. Sometimes you have to let the dice fly and allow random chance to tell the story. Had Barnaby survived, it would have been one of the most thrilling stories to regale around the proverbial campfire. Instead, the dice deemed that Barnaby’s story would take an unexpected turn, continuing on with an elvish body.

Ms. Frizzle is famed with saying, “Take chances, make mistakes – let’s get messy!” When you do that, sometimes the mess isn’t much of a mess at all.

Not to mention that the bottlecap economy bubble has officially burst. All is right in the world.

Thanks for joining me at the table for Tabletop Takeaways! You can always read more campaign journal entries at Origami Goblin, or check out all of the other great GM tips on Nerds on Earth!

Here are all of the installments I’ve written thus far:

  1. Shadow of a Doubt – How to deal with rules mistakes
  2. On the Fly – How to stall and improve your improv
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