Characters, Fatalities and Killer GMs

10 Mar

characters decending into a dungeon never to return

The first time I played an AD&D 1st edition game was quite interesting.
I had been fumbling around as a Gamemaster for my brother with the Basic Set, but I was very ignorant of things still and really didn’t know much at all. I barely had any of the real mechanics down and was fudging things a lot. Now, I faced something completely new: an experienced Gamemaster and a more complex system.

This was also the first time I was free to be a player, myself. Happily, I rolled up a first level Fighter character. After an hour of guidance through the character creation process, the mechanics were over. I now had an unnamed and very green Fighter who wielded a longsword.

The moment of reckoning had come and my intrepid Fighter entered the dungeon, making it down into a large cavern deep beneath the ground. I had a lit torch, because I was playing a Human. Entering this mysterious cavern, I saw something illuminated in the darkness; a strange spherical object that hovered above the cavern floor. The creature had a large “eye” in its spherical body and several stalk-like appendages that protruded from it. My intrepid Fighter determined that this must be a Beholder. He bowed low and spoke to the Beholder, praising it as the “Terrible Eye Tyrant” and as he did this, he rose up and struck the creature with his sword… and then everything went blank.

The Gamemaster informed me that my character had just perished. I had been killed by the exploding Gas Spore, which mimics a Beholder. Dutifully, I rolled up yet another character. The process took less time than the first and after about a half an hour of preparation, I had another character very similar to the one that surely lay covered with growing spores on the floor of the dungeon.

My character entered the caverns and was quickly slain by rats!

I rolled up yet another character and once more went into that terrible place. Shortly thereafter, I had  slain a few creatures and  gained a few coins. In a bloodied condition I hastily exited the dungeon, thinking discretion is the better part of valor. My Fighter barely managed to survive a brief foray into the first of many dungeons I would visit under this Gamemaster.

Inexperienced players can easily become fatalities under certain types of Gamemasters. I really must have wanted to play badly to endure such brutal treatment at the hands of a very much by the book GM. After many years of playing, I would not recommend that newer players be subjected to such a stickler attitude. Once they do gain experience gaming, sometimes it is good to let the dice fall where they may. A game without risk of fatalities has no thrill. However, there is a balance between being a Killer Gamemaster who does not guide newer players gently vs a Gamemaster that lets foolishness go unpunished. I may be glad in retrospect that had to work so hard to learn the game well, but I don’t recommend such things for an enjoyable roleplaying experience, in general.

I have had many characters meet grisly fates at the whim of a die roll. As the players gain wealth, power and levels, there may hope of Resurrecting a character, but that was never the case for me… they we now nothing but names in the Hall of Fame of Heroes of Yore. In many ways I am glad that my early games saw several of my party’s characters pass to the great Fantasy Beyond. The campaign we played was gritty, magical and fun! We lived or died as heroes.

Just as my first post stated, we were heroes, but not Superheroes. There was always the looming probability of death. We had to learn the that gaming was a mix of tensions: the luck of the dice, wise actions and mistakes made.

Gamemasters should not go out of their way to slay characters, nor should they allow experienced players to let their characters run wild without the possibility of consequences – including death. If you arrogantly attack a dragon, you just might get burned! It is up to the players and the Gamemaster to be flexible enough to approach these things wisely. Even if death does occur, a proper attitude must be maintained to preserve the fun they have gathered to have. If a character dies legitimately, just roll up another and move forward!

Old School Gaming involves risks and trials that the heroes of the best Fantasy novels face… sometimes even a favorite protagonist dies in these tales, just like in The Game…


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