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September 29, 2015

Death Omens

Today's post is the second part of Reinhart's guest post on character death.  See part 1 here.  Also, take a look at his blog, Chaos Engineering.

Last time, I explained the appeal of both random character death and dramatic character death, and how to handle both. Before you read this, you owe it to yourself to read that if you haven’t already. I mentioned then that this isn’t a zero-sum game. In fact, you can actually have both random character death and dramatic character death in the same game if your players are willing to make some interesting compromises.

For that purpose, I’m going to give you a system-agnostic mechanic that I use in many of my own roleplaying games: Death Omens. Death Omens help you mitigate the senselessness of random character death while still giving the dice the power to decide some of the when and how of a character’s death. Plus, they’re also really easy to port into most systems.

All you really need are some index cards and a writing utensil. (What good GM doesn’t have have those?) The idea is to directly telegraph when you’re introducing deadly stakes. You see this sort of game mechanic lately in video games like Destiny.

Adapting a mechanic from a video game doesn’t make your RPG into a video game any more than adapting a character from Game of Thrones makes your RPG into an HBO T&A drama.

A Death Omen is a game-world event that signals to the players that their characters might die here.  It’s a note on an index card labeled DEATH OMEN that describes why the scene is potentially deadly.  It makes it clear in black-and-white that death is on the line.

Now and then the dice might create a situation that would permanently remove a player character from the game. When that happens, if no Death Omen is in play for that player, then the consequences are assigned instead to the stakes for that scene.

You’re presenting clear stakes for your conflict scenes, right?  

Stakes and Deadly Stakes

Every time there’s a conflict, both parties want something, and the two goals are in opposition to some degree.  
  • The ghouls want to eat, and the PCs want to explore the tomb.  Being eaten would certainly stop them from exploring the tomb!  
  • The forest fire wants to burn everything, and the PCs want to escape the forest alive.  Being burned alive would certainly stop them from escaping!
  • The orcs want to protect their camp, and the PCs want to sneak in to rescue some captives.  If the PCs get in, the orcs have failed to protect the camp.
  • The Duke wants to preserve his power, and the PCs want him to arrest the nobleman who killed their mentor.  If the Duke arrests the nobleman at the request of some common adventurers, he undermines his power base.

“Stakes” is a common term in all kinds of games.  In essence, it means “the thing that happens if you screw up.”  In a dramatic conflict between PCs and the opposition in a tabletop RPG, stakes always means something that happens when the PCs fail to achieve their goal, or fail to prevent the opposition from achieving theirs.

Sometimes the stakes are deadly:  The ghouls’ hunger and the forest fire are imminent threats to life.  But the orcs might not want to kill intruders so much as keep them away.  They might be content with a blustery show of force, or a cruel and savage beating that drives intruders off.  Sure, orcs are big strong monsters with huge swords.  They’re deadly; but then so are Dukes.  If the PCs screw up with the Duke, he could just have them hanged for trumped up charges.  The scene’s stakes are only “life or death” when the opposition wants to kill the PCs, first and foremost -- if killing the PCs is the opposition’s goal.

Of the two deadly stakes examples, one is necessarily deadly, and the other is possibly deadly.  In both, the opposition wants to kill the PCs; but in the ghoul scene, there are more ways for the PCs to fail than just getting killed.


  • PC Goal: Get into the tomb
  • Opposition Goal: Eat living flesh

Forest Fire

  • PC Goal: Not get burned to ashes
  • Opposition Goal: Burn everything to ashes

In the ghoul scene, there are three possible “failure” conditions:

  1. Opposition goal succeeds:  The ghouls eat the one or more of the PCs
  2. Opposition goal succeeds:  The ghouls eat some innocent villager or some innocent villager’s cattle
  3. PC goal fails:  The PCs are driven off by the ghouls and cannot get into the tomb

In the forest fire scene, there is only one possible failure condition:

  1. Opposition goal succeeds; PC goal fails:  One or more PCs are burned to ashes

Death Omens that Communicate Stakes

When we talk about Death Omens, we’re talking about something that signals to the PCs that the stakes of the scene have become necessarily deadly.

The forest fire scene will start with a Death Omen.  It will say “You could be burned to death in this fire.”

While that card is in play, PC death can happen any time.  It’s a sword of Damocles.

So... were you, like, born with that?

The ghoul scene might not start with a Death Omen.  But once the PCs get closer to the ghouls than any other edible flesh, the GM will probably hand out a card that says “These ghouls want to kill you and eat your flesh.”  If the PCs try luring them into a pit trap with some cattle, or sacrificing an annoying villager to them, the Death Omen might not come out.

Are Death Omens “plot armor”?  No.  They’re a descriptive tool, not a proscriptive tool.  A scene where the GM didn’t want to use character death as stakes anyway doesn’t get a Death Omen.  There’s a social contract that says “nobody’s PC dies unless there’s a Death Omen on the table.”  But as soon as the GM sees death in the offing, out comes an Omen.

This is the most basic application of Death Omens.  They communicate what the stakes of the scene are in the most basic sense.  In theory, you could use an index card to describe the stakes of every scene, but character death as stakes is unique.  In most tabletop RPGs, a player’s ability to play the game at all ceases if his or her character dies.  That’s a big deal.  That’s worth a special omen.

But there is another way to use Death Omens.  It helps make the game more cinematic, and gives the players more control over their characters’ story arcs.

Shape of Your Doom:  Author Stance Death Omens

If you’re a very narrative group, you might want to use Death Omens in an entirely different way.  This is a distinct variation of the above system.  

During Session Zero (or Character Creation for those who don’t know that term), the GM announces the campaign is going to use Death Omens, and the player gets to choose the conditions in which their character may die.  It lets a player choose something thematic about their character, a type of situation that will always spotlight their character, and how rare life-threatening scenes will be.

They have to pick something as their Death Omen, and whatever that thing is, they can’t be killed unless the scene involves that Omen.  They can even choose something rare or seemingly harmless.  

SEEMINGLY harmless.

Each player writes their character name on a card along with their Death Omen and hands it to the GM.  Whatever it is, the GM will serve up life threatening scenes for the party with this characteristic.  When those scenes happen, the GM will place the appropriate Death Omen card(s) on the table.

For example, if you choose “Fire” as your Death Omen, then you can’t die except in scenes where the GM takes out your “Fire” Death Omen card and puts it on the table.  And the GM will not do that unless fire plays a major role in that scene.  You might be crossing a bridge over lava, fighting a red dragon, fleeing a forest fire, battling a mutant pyrokineticist, or running into a burning building to save a loved one.  

Make sure to foreshadow your Death Omen by having your character talk about his or her fears/enemies/weakness all the time.  Make it a shtick.

If your card isn’t out, you’re not in danger of dying.  But you can still suffer major losses.  Here’s where the challenge comes in.  The GM will need to think of alternative stakes for every scene, other than death.  If just one PC has Fire as a Death Omen, a burning building can’t kill most of the PCs.  But they can be injured, disfigured, poisoned with toxic gasses, knocked unconscious, rescued by and indebted to questionable people, have valuable equipment destroyed, etc.

That should be plenty of food for thought. I appreciate feedback, so please give Death Omens a shot in your games, and tell me how they worked for you.

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