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The Wages of Death Are Sin

As an entry in this month’s RPG Carnival, I took a line of attack from Amagi Games; here’s a mini-system/technique for mechanically providing greater weight to the death of NPCs. This is sort of vaguely in the vicinity of being on-topic — the subject is character death, failing to specify player characters, after all. And undeath can be metaphorical. Or so I claim.

Following the cut, a list of steps.

1. Someone Important Is Killed By PCs

“Important” can be defined by the GM, but it’s important in relation to the emotions of the player characters. Discussion is appropriate for this step. The final decision is up to the GM, however; this ensures that the technique can be used to add importance to a killing that might seem trivial at the time.

2. Identify Signifiers

What does (or should) the dead NPC remind the characters about? Again, good for discussion among all participants; again, the GM gets final call. These should be fairly narrow. In general, they’ll fall into three categories:

  • Goals: keeping Malcolm’s fiance safe from the dwarven invasion, killing the wizard Sorophase, planting a hundred apple trees in the Hedge. Goals should be neither in line with or opposing player or player character goals; orthogonal goals which are somewhat inconvenient are best.
  • Behaviors: lead a good Catholic life, always be first to volunteer, attack orcs on sight. Behaviors are things a player character can do; they’re descriptive, not prescriptive.
  • Taboos: never strike a man with glasses, don’t set foot in Walt Disney World, never drink alcohol. The flip side of Behaviors.

Goals are fairly neutral; any given action might either help or hinder a Goal. There are mechanical consequences either way. Behaviors are beneficial — mechanically speaking, a Behavior provides a benefit when it’s followed. Looking at the examples above, a player might get a bonus when attacking orcs for the third Behavior, but would not be penalized for not attacking orcs. Taboos are detrimental, and can only hinder player characters. Given the first example Taboo, a player would suffer a penalty when hitting a man with glasses, but would not get a bonus for leaving the poor scholar alone.

For any given death, there should be at least one signifier that can provide a benefit (Goal or Behavior), and one that can hurt (Goal or Taboo).

3. Assign Numbers

Basic guidelines: almost everything should be a +1 or a -1 in D&D. Yeah, that’s not really descriptive enough, though. In D&D, I wouldn’t give a +1 or -1 to attack rolls, because that’s big; I’d apply the +1 or -1 to damage. For skill challenges, you can probably do the +1/-1 to skill rolls, since you aren’t using a given skill for every roll.

Storyteller probabilities are odd. An extra die in the die pool seems about right. For Over the Edge, stick an bonus die in the pool (but not a bonus keep die). Feng Shui, hey, it’s cinematic and any given roll is not super important, so a bonus Fortune die or anti-Fortune die is just fine. Dark Heresy, +5 or -5 to the percentile roll. Etc.

4. Use The Numbers

Apply the numbers from the last step whenever a player character action advances or hinders a Goal; whenever a player character lives up to a Behavior; or whenever a player character breaks a Taboo. This is why the signifiers should be fairly narrow — you don’t want it to happen all the time.

5. Buy Off Memories

Players can drop signifiers at any point after the first time the signifier affects them. The entire group must agree on the drop. This means, yes, the GM can veto a drop but it’s sort of cheesy. I mean, dude, listen to your players.

Optional rule: Taboos and Goals can’t be dropped without also dropping a Behavior. Look, balance!


  1. jonathan jonathan

    OK… so If I follow what you’re saying an example might be: Manmuk the Spectacled King dies defending his homeland from invading orcs. The party is in a pitched battle with the the orcs later in the game and then, Sir John Foureyes (a PC) advances on a orc shaman’s position and strikes him down yelling “You should never hit a man with glasses!” he gets a small bonus to the attack roll?

    Maybe I’m confused….

  2. jonathan jonathan

    Oh.. and why do people need to register to post comments?

  3. Bryant Bryant

    They don’t need to register — I’ll have to peer at the page design. Comments do get held for moderation.

    And no; an example might be that Manmuk the Spectacled King is killed by the PCs. One of his goals was, say, protect the kingdom from the invading army of Mog the Magnificent Orc. If that wasn’t something the PCs were already trying to do, it’d make an excellent Goal.

    So they’d then get +1 on damage rolls (assuming D&D) while fighting off the invading orcish army. They wouldn’t get that bonus while fighting other orcs. If they were for some reason trying to help the invading army, they’d get a -1 to damage rolls while fighting by the army’s side.

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