A few weeks ago, I read a Gnome Stew article in which player character death was called a “hot button issue”. It puts the argument out there that PCs should not die in game — in books and movies, we often know that the protagonist will be successful in the end, after all, so there is no reason for a protagonist to die in your game.
Secondly, it argues that character death is akin to punishment for the player, as it pulls them out of the game.
Around the same time, I read an article at D&D With Porn Stars which — in its coda — looked at character death and character creation through the lens of how the game is approached.
These two articles mixed and merged in my head, and are now forcing themselves back up onto the pages of the Big Bad Blog.
What is death in roleplaying?
In a roleplaying game, death is not the same as it is in real life. Depending on the game you play, it does not even necessarily mean that the character is gone — it could simply be like a hockey penalty. But if death is not death, what is it?
Again, this depends on the death in question. Some deaths might be sacrifice, suicide (at least in the kamikaze sense), or storytelling. But most deaths will be consequence.
What Gnome Stew misses is that in many — dare I say most? — roleplaying games, death merely represents defeat. In games like Dungeons & Dragons, it’s not even permanent. It needs to be kept in mind that death is not the only — and often, is not even the best — consequence for failure.
Game style and death
The D&D With Porn Stars article makes clear that playing styles can strongly influence the impact of death on the players, and the way death is used.
Hack and Slash games must have death as a consequence. If you are playing kill the monster and take the treasure, the monster gets a chance to kill you. That’s just how it goes. As a GM, fudging die rolls takes the fun out of the game — which is essentially a small scale tactical battle game with odd weaponry. When the point of the game is to win the fights, the players need to actually win the fights.
Winning cannot occur if there is no opportunity for loss.
Character-driven games are often better when a consequence other than death is chosen.
If you play a roleplaying game which is about building a character, understanding the character and playing that character’s role to a T … well, this is where death becomes as much penalty as consequence — not only do you say to the character “this is the consequence of your actions”, you also force the player to go back to square one and start over.
This is not necessarily cool, or warranted.
In these situations, there is often a better consequence to throw at the players, as they are emotionally invested in the well-being of their characters.
World-driven games ought to have death as part of the landscape. If you are playing in a sandbox game in which the players (through their characters) explore the world you have built, with strange peoples and places, danger hidden around every corner, et cetera … death should be part of the landscape. Such a world ought to be littered with the bones of old heroes — and your players should be in constant danger of being such heroes.
Storytelling games should also feel free to use death — though it does not seem as necessary as it does in the Hack and Slash and Wolrd-driven games.
I was amused by the Gnome Stew article — it mentioned that there was never any doubt that Frodo would live (in Lord of the Rings) or Luke Skywalker (in Star Wars). But, of course, the entire company does not survive the whole distance in Lord of the Rings — Boromir dies, much as Thorin does in The Hobbit. And Obi Wan dies in Star Wars, as do some lovable Ewoks. Most stories involve death and loss at some point — if the story calls for (or looks like it will be improved by) PC death, then PC death should be possible. Perhaps even desirable.
Other types of consequence
As a GM, it is always important to remember that consequence comes in different forms. In the epic Dungeons and Dragons game I ran during University there were two large consequence scenes which went beautifully.
The first was a death scene — an injured party member went wandering around town alone, although the Big Bad was certainly in the area. A battle ensued and the character died. The interesting part is that it was not the player who played the character who was most distraught, but one of the other players whose character had lost a travelling companion. It is not necessarily the player who loses the character who “experiences” the greatest consequences.
The second was a session in which the PCs were trying to drive an enemy army from a city that they had captured. While the players were “successful”, their tactics were not — the city burned, and many NPCs died. At the time, I thought this consequence — the tactics and approach seemed a little laissez-faire to me, with the foregone “we’re PCs, so it’ll work” attitude — was a light slap on the wrist, as it did not impact the PC’s directly. However, it stuck rather heavily with one of the players.
The lesson here is that the negative consequences do not have to fall directly on the player’s character for the consequence to strike home. Nor does that consequence need necessarily to be death. In fact, with more experienced players, a more complex and indirect consequence can be better — waiting around for a Raise Dead spell can be a bit ho-hum.
Take the kid’s gloves off
Gnome Stew puts forth the argument that because character death is a penalty that can emotionally impact players, it is not fun and should not be part of your game.
This ignores what people actually enjoy. Sad movies, scary movies, games in which there are winners and losers, games in which there are penalties (hockey, for example), and driving too fast are just a few of these.
Penalties are okay if they are built in to the game. Any time a player has their character do something risky, they should be doing so with the understanding that it might remove their character from the game if it does not go well. That’s what the game is — PC’s, in almost every game I have ever played, are huge risk-takers. Nothing wagered, nothing won.
And players who are emotionally invested enjoy the games because of the emotional investment. Character death — their own, another player’s, or even an important NPC’s — can actually play as a trigger for exactly what they are trying to get out of the game.
Arguments which state that consequences should be avoided in roleplaying games, particularly when they claim that this is for the player’s own good, miss out on a great deal of the fun in roleplaying — it arbitrarily decides that great moments (and set-ups for great moments) in roleplaying games are de facto not fun.
Here at the Big Bad Blog we disagree. Consequences are a necessity if a game is to be fun. Otherwise you might as well just sit there with a bored expression rolling dice until all the bad guys are gone.