How To Keep Players of Unconscious & Dying Characters Engaged

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1214

How To Keep Players of Unconscious & Dying Characters Engaged

When a character drops in combat, the fun stops for that player. While they can cheer their friends on, they can no longer join the fun.

Different systems have different rules around death and dying. Regardless of ruling, here are some ways to keep players having fun even when their PC falls.

1. The Dying Condition

Make dying a state of being. Create a range of health points or wound levels such as 0 to negative Constitution, or anything under 10, or the last 5%. Whatever makes sense to you.

When dying, the character can only perform limited actions. For example:

  • Can limp or crawl a few feet each turn
  • Can only speak but still has most senses
  • Can attack at 50% strength or effectiveness
  • Can cast spells but must roll each time or cause a misfire

The player’s still in the fight. The character suffers from reduced capacity. And the party learns a comrade is about to succumb to their wounds.

2. Purgatory Right After Death

In this option, characters are dead but their soul, spirit, or essence has not yet left the scene.

  • Character leaves their body and becomes a minor ghost for awhile
  • An angel (or fiend) arrives and begins negotiations for the PC’s soul
  • The PC can try to psychically seize control of a combatant for awhile
  • The character’s spirit lingers and can speak psychically to other PCs

3. Curses!

The player gives their character memorable final words. While not as exciting as being allowed to keep fighting, at least this minor form of player engagement is better than “You drop to the ground. Time to roll up a new one.”

However, as part of some clever world building, you might allow those final words to have special weight:

  • Attack enemy morale
  • Afflict foes or a faction with a curse
  • Attempt divine intervention
  • Death vision reveals clues or hints

4. Play an NPC

I’m all for players helping to run NPCs and foes in combat. However, this options always says, “Do something else” to the player of a fallen PC, which isn’t ideal. That said, it can sometimes help if a player can stay in the game in some way while processing their character’s passing or planning their next character.

Note that you can introduce new NPCs and combatants mid-combat most of the time, so you aren’t restricted to existing foes for the player to run.

5. Write Their Will

Chances are characters will talk around the campfire while players are away. ๐Ÿ™‚ And they will at some point be likely talk about what to do with their body and belongings should the next carrion crawler around the corner get them.

When a character falls, you could ask the player to make a will, bequeath their wealth, or put names of inheritors beside items on their character sheet.

This can affect even current gameplay as the player decides who gets what. Though, survivors might have thoughts of their own….

6. Plan Their Funeral

While not staying engaged with the combat at-hand, a player could keep involved by planning their PC’s funeral and ceremony. They can choose what their headstone says, where they’d like the PC’s ashes spread, who leads the ceremony, what rituals might be involved, and so on.

Perhaps the character died a hero, and you want the world to change because of their death. Kin appear, the Baron declares a national holiday, foes give special tribute, and so on.

7. Keep the Character Story Going

While the player might no longer play their old character, they can help you keep the plot going.

For example, a PC might know several important secrets. How can the rest of the party discover them to keep your plot alive? Collaborate with your player and have them describe retroactive contingency plans in case of death. Perhaps each PC gets a mysterious letter delivered to them. Or a relative or close friend whom the character confided in appears with revelations. Maybe the party is summoned to bring the body back to the PC’s clan for proper ritual burial, and that adventure has ways of conveying the character’s knowledge from beyond the pale.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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Motivating Players to Hex Crawl

RPT GM W asks:

I’m concerned about whether my game suits the format I’m using. Players have sailed across the ocean and are settling a new land, based on a mythologized settling of the Americas.

They land on the east coast and can proceed however they please across the continent. As they explore further, they’d learn this continent is the same as the one they already left but millennia in the future after a great war.

Though I think the idea is cool, I’m starting to feel like the concept isn’t ideal for a hexcrawl format – especially for an open table game with many players that won’t be showing up to every session.

I don’t think players will have much connection with the land they came from in their backstories if they never actually play there. And if they aren’t all that connected to that land, they won’t be able to notice any similarities between the old continent and the new one, leading to a player/character disconnect.

I think this might just have to be a sort of “icing on the cake” situation: where if the players dig deep enough and invest themselves to uncover that backstory, that’s great! But if they don’t invest themselves all that much, hopefully they just have fun exploring and interacting with what they find.

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Hey W!

What is the party’s goal? I’d focus on why each player and character wants to explore the land.

From my experience, players don’t care about my world history. ๐Ÿ™‚ Some do, but it’s a fleeting “oh cool” in an encounter.

World histories are often passive. They don’t create interesting choices for the party. And they don’t provide motivation – why risk your life to chase down another historical fact?

So consider the idea of Kin, which really sunk home when I encountered the Aria RPG, pun intended. I’m going to cover Kinship in the future with my Wizard of Worlds course.

Meantime though, as an example, you could create a family history for each PC. A line of ancestors. Now it’s personal. The players get to discover their roots. You can place all kinds of great treasures, lore, and puzzles involving ancestors. Buried treasure and such. You might even have some characters’ pasts merge. “Hey! We’re related!”

So instead of discovering mere facts about a fictional world, the players and characters get to find out how their relatives changed the world, what adventures their ancestors had, and what secrets their families discovered – and kept hidden.

I hope this helps!

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Ending Sandbox Campaigns

RPT GM Steven asks:

I’m struggling with closing out a campaign. I’ve been running these two campaigns for well over a year now, and started them without any DMing experience. Both campaigns keep branching out and opening new loops, and I’m not sure how to bring it all together in a satisfying way within an acceptable timeframe. Any tips on starting to push the game into the end game and on how to get your players in the mindset of closing things down instead of seeking new threads?

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Hey Steven!

You’ll want to establish a primary party goal. When that goal is complete the campaign can at least end on a high note even if there are still open loops.

For those open loops, you need some loop killers. Examples:

  • The (new?) villain turns off magic by killing, capturing, wounding, cursing the source of magic. Any loop involving magic now ends with this villain.
  • The villain raises an army and whacks several open loops as it rampages around the countryside.
  • Rivals become involved in multiple loops and start closing them themselves (and getting all the cool loot before the PCs!)
  • An asteroid hits suddenly making other loops seem small or it closes loops upon impact. ๐Ÿ™‚

Now, at the top of a page put your campaign’s End Game. What’s an ideal campaign ending look like?

At the bottom of the page write each loop.

Then increment each loop one “step” – draw short line up the page to a new encounter, adventure, or 5 Room Dungeon for that loop.

As you do this, look for ways to combine loops so they start connecting to more and more of the same Next Steps as you move up the page. Your goal is to get down to three major threads or fewer as you get close to your End Game.

I think of it like a river tributary system. All the little stream loops eventually hit a river that gets bigger and bigger. Then the rivers merge. At some point, you’ve got a raging river pouring into the ocean. A single water way from joining many.

Anywho, I’ve been in the same boat as you for sandbox campaigns where I kept introducing new stuff. So I had to go through a process like the above to start connecting things for closure.

And it helps to have a strong magnetic force that attracts many loops, like a villain or an impending catastrophe. Then the PCs whack the villain or save the world, and all those connected loops get resolved into a great campaign finale. I hope this helps!

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Encounter Planning Checklist

RPT GM J shared with me their encounter prep process:

I run two campaigns in Pathfinder, both homebrew, and feel like my encounters are no fun. I mean I don’t enjoy them so my players hardly can.

So I figured it came down to 3 things [with one being] poor encounter planning, giving me not many options to mix things up a bit.

I came up with a formula that lets you predict the fun in an encounter. If you’re interested I can share it but it is a bit long to explain. Anyhow, one takeaway from it was a list of items to consider when planning an encounter. It is this:

  1. Define CR = group level average +/- 2 in EP.
  2. Reason for encounter / enemy motivation for encounter. How do players find that out?
  3. Reward/penalty/stake in general. How do players find that out and when?
  4. Encounter location design. At least 2 gadgets to change CR.
  5. Set up enemies/skill checks with respect to CR. Leave an option to make it harder and easier.
    • Where are enemies and Points of Interest? Distribute them, 5-6 fields distance. Have some arrive later, some flee. Use different entries.
    • Let enemies boost each other in tactics, spells or similar.
    • Cover? Lighting? Fog?
    • Difficult terrain? Traps? Dangers like lava, floods, something awakening? PC skills targeted?
    • At least 1 entry and 1 exit.
    • Combat/skill phases? How to trigger/prevent next phase? What does NPC have to do, what do players need to do?
  6. What does the combat result mean for the campaign?