Metagame Mechanics: Marked for Death
Lucky died above the body of his wounded comrade, having spent his last cure spell on a friend instead of himself. Barrin was the last dwarf standing in the final confrontation against Gordon Beast, and with the battle won, his rage subsided and so did he. Jack was drawn and quartered when the party failed to rescue him. Shoudra died in Zeke’s arms with only 10 rounds to say goodbye before the poison finished her.
Yet not all deaths are so noble. Some paladin fell off the boat and drowned in the river. That dwarf wizard was critted by a gnoll in the second round of his adventuring career. A bard was ripped in two by a troll. These all added to the grittiness of our adventure, but it leaves a sour taste to see a character dropped from main protagonist to red shirt for such a minor encounter.
And not everyone shares my thirst for noble sacrifice. Most players are reluctant to part with the characters into which they have put so much time and passion. And no players really enjoy seeing a character die for no good reason; at best, they’re good sports about it.
Marked for Death is a metagame mechanic that leads a character toward a premeditated, meaningful character death.
Through private mutual agreement between PC and GM, a character can be labeled “Marked for Death.” When Marked for Death, the character has two sessions where he is immune to death. The GM is explicitly permitted to advise, fudge, or outright lie to preserve the character’s life for these two sessions.
After two sessions, the GM must kill the character in a way that advances the plot. The GM is explicitly permitted to fudge or lie to guarantee that character’s demise. When the death is at hand, the character should be offered a moment to share their final words.
The purpose of the two-session wait is threefold. First, it gives the character a chance to resolve their subplots and finally kiss the girl, tell off the father, or betray the party. Second, it gives time for the creation of a new character and to perhaps plant the seeds of their inclusion into the party. Third, and most importantly, it gives the GM time to figure out how to kill off the character in a meaningful way without derailing the current campaign arc.
The “final words” clause gives the player something to prepare for and a last chance to bring closure to his or her story. This could be a simple one-liner, a tear-jerking speech, or a last recording found in the character’s bunk.
Here are just a few of the potent ways that a storyline can use a Marked for Death character:
- A last stand against insurmountable odds that allows the party to get away.
- Getting gunned down by a rival crime family, thus cementing the turf war and driving your brothers to vengeance.
- Honorably answering a villain’s call to single combat… only to lose.
- Ascending into a higher dimension so that your powers can keep a world-devouring entity in check for another thousand years.
- Flying your damaged fighter into the power core of the enemy mothership.
- Succumbing to the disease at last; whispering your secret with your final breath.
- Taking the bullet meant for him.
- Committing seppuku to avoid staining your honor after defying the emperor’s order to protect your friends.
- Betraying one’s fellow adventurers in an attempt to claim the ultimate treasure, only to fall victim to the ultimate deathtrap—a poetic end for a weasel like you.
- Beating impossible odds to protect the one you love, dying with a smile on your face, and telling her “it’s up to you now, kid.”
- Triple-crossing the bad guy (to your detriment).
- Walking proudly to your execution while disguised as someone else.
- Crash landing the party’s ship onto the planet that will serve as the stage for the final battle.
- Getting captured during an essential scouting mission and succumbing to unspeakable torture that ultimately reveals your team’s flawless strategy.
- Repairing the reactor amid fatal radiation.
- Losing Russian roulette to show just how gritty and existential the game setting can be.
- Completing the ritual of lichdom and becoming the main villain at last.