Last Friday, my character was killed in a near TPK fighting against fungal hounds and a fungal goat; the party had been cornered in a sewer tunnel and picked apart; if I’d left them behind, I probably could’ve survived (I’d previously gotten out of a worse-looking scrap by doing parkour over the heads of nearly a dozen two-foot tall demonlings; hey, Cecilly was an acrobat with 18 Dex). But I didn’t, and we almost all died. One of the two surviving characters stopped berserking just before he killed the other.
It really sucked losing Cecilly; I don’t know what equivalent level she’d be in D&D (we’re using a levelless system), but she had nearly 1200 XP sunk into stats, classes and abilities in a system where we’ve averaged about 70 XP a session. Superficially, she was a lot like my previous character (a quirky waif from the streets), but while Elyse would hide at the first sign of danger, Cecilly was a combat monster; she could hit with ranged attacks on anything lower than an 18, and could roll at disadvantage for an extra d6 damage*. Plus, she was fast enough with her knives that she could almost always get two attacks per round. In a party as large as the one we frequently roll with, though, losing her combat strength is not a game changer. The fact that she had become a plot relevant PC in a high-casualty sandbox game is.
Much as I loved playing Elyse, she was as unimportant as she was weird and creepy. Cecilly, on the other hand, had become the “face” of the gang we’d started, was largely responsible for recruiting, managing finances, planning expansion and enterprise, and had connections with nobles, street people, and various revolutionaries. A couple PC gang members from early sessions as far back when we were still associated with the Blackbirds are either on the lam or dead. With Cecilly dead, there are only two “heavies” in the gang being run by players interested in the gang stuff, and those players don’t have the in-game connections with their current characters**.
So, what does this mean for the game? New opportunities, of course! A couple players had been uncomfortable with doing gang stuff, but for the longest time, a majority of our group (myself included) were both loving the River City Ransom hijinx and considered fighting street gangs for turf was less dangerous that mage owls, mystic mice, grease dogs, fungal beasts, deep ones, golems, feverlings, demonlings, human faced centipedes, and bone beasts.***
The new character I rolled up was a “zealous” member of the watch; he ended up helping solve the murder mystery by helping in another bloody fight against cultists where we managed to take one in alive. The irony was, we realized, that none of the characters who ended up solving the mystery were ones who’d been particularly invested in either the gang or the mystery the gang had staked its reputation on****; “so, the people who thought we should come down here are both dead; we should honor their memory by solving the mystery!” With half of the NPC gang members killed after an extraplanar demon invasion during the night of a festival and two thirds of the PC gang members dead or in hiding, it looks like the Stone Cats are on their way back down after a brief, meteoric rise. Perfect opportunity for the party to go legit.
So, instead of things falling apart, significant PC character death allows for a chance to try new things in the story. Sure, we may wonder where things would’ve gone if we stuck to the gang of performers who were securing turf and were on the verge of getting a noblewoman’s support as benefactor. But now, we’ll have new opportunities opening up to pursue that we wouldn’t have had before. Plus, the players who are less comfortable with doing the gang stuff can have a chance to move the game in directions they’d like. In the meantime, I look forward to playing a character who will be less important.
*: The system has a pretty hard limit on PC HP, with the typical range being between 5 and 9. The upside of this is that our DM doesn’t have to worry about encounter balance and can simplify his monster creation process. He can throw a mob of something at us with 8 hit points and one unique ability, give it a description like “It has mushrooms growing in its fur, its head is a goat’s skull and the body of a dog”, and we’re terrified of it, even though we’ve fought several things before that are more or less the same mechanically. Even though my combat abilities were kind of an exploit, and some rounds did upwards of 15 damage, two solid hits from anything would, and did, kill her. The chances of getting a character with a +5 initiative bonus and that good a hit chance again are slim to none.
**:three gang characters are for real dead, including one who was our main contact with the less radical of the two revolutionary groups, and at least one or two characters are semi-retired because they can’t be seen alive on the inhabited side of town.
***: and our DM wonders why we’re unconcerned about the Deep Dwarves…
****: One player did have a character who was a gang heavy, but that night he was running his character who had been turned into rat to better serve the Rat King as a liegeman; he can’t adventure in the inhabited part of the city often, since he looks like a giant rat man, so this sewer dive was a rare excursion for him. Another player is relatively new to our group, so his character doesn’t have as much history with the group (especially since his first couple died).