Death is the ultimate punishment for failure, but a cunning and subtle (or merciful) GM can punish failure without wiping out the party!
(Art: William McAusland [Outland Arts])
I recently blogged about the kind of variant rewards the PCs might receive in lieu of gold or magic. Thus it only seemed right and proper to take a look at the punishments a GM could employ instead of killing one or more characters. While death is a vital part of he game, it is often rather permanent – which can suck if you've played a character for two years. Sometimes, other options exist.
- Banishment: For truly heinous crimes or failure, the PCs could be banished from a city or kingdom. This is particularly bad if the PCs are banished from their home. However, their quest for forgiveness can be an excellent subplot in a campaign that could takes years of game play to resolve.
- Cursed: A powerful spellcaster may curse the PCs if they fail to complete their quest. Alternatively, a PC’s deity could be displeased with his conduct and require him to make amends. This curse could have actual game mechanic related penalties or could purely be a matter for role-playing and character development. The curse remains until the PC redeems himself.
- Disfigurement: If a character suffers enough damage to die, kindly GM can instead determine he suffers some kind of permanent disfigurement. This could be a purely cosmetic disfigurement or one that has an impact on his abilities or mobility. Think carefully, before inflicting horrific injuries on a character. Sure, playing a one-legged dwarf can be fun (as I personally can attest) but make certain the player is on-board before proceeding.
- Failed Quests Have Consequences: If the PCs fail a quest, it often means a villain's scheme succeeds. Such successful plots could (and should) have an effect on the game world. Having the PCs experience these consequences is a great way for the GM to build depth to his game world and can even act as an catalyst for future adventures.
- Fines or Confiscation of Property: PCs love their shiny treasure, so being fined for failure can be a harsh punishment. Leaving an adventure with less treasure than you went in with is not ideal, but it's better than dying!
- Imprisonment: The PCs could be imprisoned – perhaps for a certain amount of time or until they are sacrificed to some dark power. Alternatively, the PCs could go free once a hefty ransom has been paid. Rather than the end of the campaign, the party are thrust into a new and exciting position; they must escape! (If you are going to go down this route, it is best to also provide a means for the party to recover at least the lion’s share of their equipment).
- Loss of Reputation: If the PCs run away, or publicly fail to help someone in need, their reputation can suffer. From being seen as defenders of the people, they can be tarnished with the brush of cowardice. Shopkeepers could refuse to serve them – or charge more for their services – while commoners could stop helping the party in fear of being associated with them.
- Reoccurring Villain: If they fail to kill him, the PCs' enemy likely escapes. Reoccurring villains can be a fun part of any campaign – if not overdone. Such folk, have the advantage over a normal villain in upcoming encounters as they already know much of the PCs' tactics and capabilities. (Also, PCs love to kill re-occurring villains!)
Have your PCs suffered in other ways as a result of a failed adventure? Share their woes in the comments below and remember you can download this – and every other advice article – for free at ragingswan.com/articles.