With the advent of a new edition of D&D there’s been a wave of nostalgia among many of my gaming friends, bringing with it talk of old-school gaming with full-on dungeon crawls and all the risks those days of gaming brought for our characters. For me, it brings up less than fond memories of spending all afternoon creating a character only to have her die at the entrance to a dungeon because the GM grabbed the wrong level module.
Character death is always a bit of a hot topic among gamers. While it’s not quite as common today as it was back in the days of yore, the issue can still bring out vehement opinions on both sides of the argument. One school of thought pushes for ‘realistic’ outcomes to dangerous choices and doesn’t flinch at the idea of a dead character when the roll of the dice turns against the player. Conversely, many modern games emphasize the idea that character death is a rare thing and should never be taken lightly.
I’m not a fan of character death. I’ve always attributed my aversion to my first steps into gaming and the number of characters I burned through in lethal dungeons that took no prisoners and gave no quarter. As much as I fell in love with the hobby, I came to hate putting creative thought and effort into a character only to have them die in one or two sessions for stupid reasons that made no sense in the overall story. Don’t get me wrong, I adored my first GM, but we were teenagers and it was ‘1stÂ Edition’. If the dice turned against you, oh well! Time to make a new character.
With the new D&D spurring talk of the old days, I’ve been reexamining my issues with character death. I always hated the deaths of those many fantasy characters, but in recent years I have had characters die in games where I didn’t have a problem with it. It’s very rare, but I never had an issue with losing a character in a horror game like Dread, or even a full-bore military-esque Shadowrun game. Eventually it struck me that my problem with character death has more to do with the genre of the game than it has to do with actually losing the character. Nobody likes losing a character, but when it fit with the story, I was okay with it.
Different genres have different conventions on how survivable characters are throughout the length of the story and, to me, the best games are always the ones that capture the essence of the genre the game is set in. Awesome horror games have you waking up in the middle of the night clutching the sheets. A rousing supers game will have you leave the table feeling like you can take on the world. Good fantasy games capture that sense of epic adventure that pretty much founded the entire hobby as it tried to emulate ‘Lord of the Rings’. If characters can die for stupid, random reasons, it can kill that sense of verisimilitude you want and need your players to have.
For example, take Boromir. Throughout ‘Fellowship of the Ring’, he fights with the rest of the fellowship but struggles with his attraction to the ring Frodo must carry. During the climax of the book, he dies sacrificing himself so the others have a chance to escape the orc horde that has finally caught up to them. It’s dramatic! It’s gut-wrenching! It’s tragic! It’s EPIC! Conversely, most of my old-school D&D characters died because I rolled a 1 and they tripped over a stupid rock.
As a GM, I rarely make games lethal, but I also tend to run games set in genres where random character deaths would be jarring. Mostly this means epic fantasy, super heroes, or modern supernatural (with a little bit of Doctor Who thrown in). Is this because I don’t like character death or because these are the genres I prefer? It might actually be a bit of both. Even though I don’t enjoy running horror or military style games, I like to think I’d stay true to the tropes of the genre if I did.
Where do your games fall in relation to this topic? Does the lethality line up with the genre, or do you go a different route? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I don’t like stupid random death or the constant resurrection found in most D&D games. Players need a fair shake, but a game without death is also a game without any real stakes or consequences. To me the best games find the sweet spot of dangerous and challenging without being fickle meat grinders.
The game Eclipse Phase has resurrection built into its universe. If you die you just make sure your friends pull an implant in the back of your neck, which is then placed in your next body: and you’re back. Technically you’re playing a copy of your dead self with its last recorded memories, but you’re effectively immortal. I find it hard to create any real emotional investment or consequences in situations like this or D&D’s resurrection magic.
Tom, I think you completely missed what made the system you describe from Eclipse Phase awesome. Consider this: If you don’t recover your “backup disk” you’re still immortal, you just get a rez from your last “save point” sometimes months or years back. In addition, bodies, at least good ones or ones that fit your preferences, are expensive and rare. Instead, you often get the junker model with existing damage that your patron is willing to shell out for.
This is an amazing opportunity for all kinds of role playing. What would it be like, having your brain dumped in the body of someone of a different gender, or a meth head, or a freaking space octopus? How exactly, would you handle that? How do you handle the grim certainty that if not this time, not far in the future, you will be going on a suicide mission? How do you handle it, when you’re revived from a years old backup, only to find you’ve gotten a divorce and your significant other has remarried in that time… and you have no idea whatsoever why, and you still love them as much as you ever did (except maybe in the intervening years, you have no way of knowing.) What awesome secrets did you learn that died with you? What caches of tech did you stow in safe-houses you’ll never find again?
I don’t recall the book explicitly pointing this out but it’s written between the lines of all the fiction.
I have to protest the idea, advanced by Tomcollective, that a game with no chance of death is a game with no stakes. Would you say nothing is at stake if you lose your job in real life? It’s not going to kill you. But things are definitely at stake.
I’d actually go so far as to say that a game that relies on the possibility of character depth to establish stakes is a shallow game. Most of the time, character death should NOT be the stake. If the world is reduced to a blasted wasteland, and the PCs survive, was nothing at stake?
Well said, Angela. Pointless character death – that caused by game mechanics alone, divorced from the story – is a waste. I’ve experienced a number of occasions as a GM when we simply stopped what was going on and discussed what had just happened when a character died for no reason other than a roll or two, or when the wheels suddenly came completely off and we had a TPK drop out of the sky.
On the other hand, I’ve had a few occasions when, after a long campaign with a lot of character development, it was decided to kill one of the PCs, and that player and I worked together to devise a way for it to happen within the story and in a way that added to it for everyone else. That was really exceptional, and made the death not only ‘okay’ but a value-add to the story.
But that’s definitely the exception. Unless you’re playing Paranoia, character death should be avoided as best as possible.
Glad to see someone bring that up, lyle.spade! When handled a certain way, character death can be an intense (would it sound odd to say intimate?) roleplay opportunity between player and GM. My rule of thumb is that it should be be premeditated by both of you â€“ and that can be anything as simple as the player giving you a significant face-cue seconds before before throwing himself into something unsurvivable, to talking about the character’s personal plot threads for weeks before placing the opportunity in front of the player.
The best ones are the ones where you’re prepared enough to give the occasion the drama it deserves, but you’re still able to be surprised by exactly how the player handles it. Youâ€™re building something emotional together; no other moment in roleplay is quite like it.
I get what you guys are saying about “random pointless” character death and bad rolls and such, but I think it’s unfair to claim that these systems are bad and high variance of danger is not conductive of good gaming.
I feel the fault lies more in a lack of proper consideration for character design, playstyle and the synergy these hold with the game on the table.
Specifically, if you know the game you’re playing has high mortality rates, spending more than the minimum time to build characters is counter intuitive. Similarly, more cautious and careful tactics and strategies are called for.
Failing to consider adjustments to your standard model of play based on the game you’re playing is bound to create a disappointing experience.
I don’t however, feel that this is wholly the fault of the player. After all, many of us cut our teeth on old school high mortality games, and simply lacked our current level of wisdom that would allow us to make such adjustment and decisions.
I blame it all on Weis and Hickman…
That was one of the bigger adjustments to make when I dug out old systems. DCC is good about explaining it–don’t bother with a backstory, “I was a farmer” is plenty. Instead of starting with a backstory, view levels 1-3 as your character’s backstory (if you survive)… and 4+ as your “real” character’s beginning.
I’ve always GM’d with a clear caution and preparation = a higher chance at survival type of mind set.
If the character/party prepares and enters a dangerous situation or conflict smart and with a escape strategy or at least some emergency supplies on hand the chances of them surviving the encounter are significantly higher.
However if they just charge in without much fore thought to the possibility of failure there’s a good chance someone will be on the morgue slab at the end of the scene.
In my games while combat can (and often is) deadly, most characters can avoid dying with a little fore thought and intelligence such as not charging machine gun nests or trying to disarm clay-more mines with paper clips. (and no demolitions skill.)
In short I expect character death from stupidity more than bad dice rolls, and often remind new players that surrender or retreat are both viable options and fighting to the death is a deliberate choice, not the only one available.
Nice article! I agree that I dislike character deaths that result from a poor roll and a hasty GM excuse, “You accidentally stumble and fall off the cliff… ten yards over to your right.”
Each genre brings a unique way of handling the situation. Epic fantasy and superheroes lend well to the idea of the invincible character when, while death is rare, other tragedies abound. (i.e. fails to protect important NPC and they die, major injury, destruction of equipment, failure to win a major battle) Dungeon crawls, horror, and many street-fighter style games lend themselves more to character death with no “take-backs”.
Both of the games I’m running now are superhero based so I’ve been reading Gnome Stew articles with that view point for awhile. (Side note: I’m probably going to start a fantasy game soon because one of my games is wrapping up. Yay! I’ve missed fantasy.) Super campaigns are wonderful. Most of my players hate losing characters, but they’re okay with it if they know that something crazy might happen and their characters will come back later. Is it kind of unrealistic for 75% of their characters to come back from the dead? Yes. But this IS superheroes we’re talking about here. We’re not playing the game to be realistic.
A helpful resource that applies mostly to the super genre, but can be adapted to fit others with a little imagination, is this list of ways for a PC to come back after they’ve kicked the bucket.
Most are rather humorous, but they can be great if you need inspiration.
My daughter ran a game using 3.5 but she took out the Raise Dead line of spells entirely. She didn’t want us to be comfortable. On the other hand, even though the BBEG (or one of them, anyway) was a beholder, she tweaked the one beholder we fought (not actually the biggest baddest beholder of the setting) to avoid the “make this saving throw or be dead” sort of situations that it would otherwise set up.
This is a tricky area for a DM, because you want the game to feel dangerous to the players, but not actually kill their characters, at least not in a way that seems capricious.
I hadn’t thought about that aspect of Eclipse Phase. Unfortunately I also think those elements are perhaps better delivered through fiction or media. (Although if a group could pull those things off, that would be six shades of awesome.)
As for stakes/death/ect: the main ideas I come back to are consequences and the potential to suffer actual loss. In RPGs/DnD this often is easily accomplished through the death of a character. Your investment is more or less automatic. But I find my thinking taking the idea of a temporary death to some logical conclusions, and when I remove the finality of death from the human condition, even in a fictional sense, I find I care a lot less about virtually everything. The town’s going to die? So what? We can always raise the people one at a time. My dog died? Meh. Bring him back. My lover jumped off a bridge? God dammit, I hate when she does that. That reminds me of a novel I heard about where people literally could not die. They would wake up in new bodies somewhere else. At some point death became a means of travel. The no one stays dead trope of Superheroes also lead to a decline in my interest in comics. This is, admittedly, likely a personal quirk. There are plenty of ways to establish stakes, but if the PC’s/Players/Party doesn’t stand to actually lose something, it can be difficult.
It was an interesting enough topic that I attacked it at twice the word count over at my site:
I’ve found that the lethality of the game usually depends on the conventions of the genre and I try to adjust my use of rules mechanics to fit the expectation of the setting. Star Wars and Star Trek — you shouldn’t be losing characters unless they think they can cut out of their contract to get a film career going. Battlestar Galactica — unless you are one of the characters with a destiny, you should be ready for the meat grinder when the toasters come calling; in high loss settings like post-apocalyptic, or military settings, or horror settings I favor “troupe play”, giving the players more than one character to play so that if one gets popped, there’s another right there and developed.
Scott Martin’s comment about curtailing the details of your backstory is a good way to go, as well, and spoke to me having just watched “The Rover” where the lead (Guy Pierce” only says “I was a farmer”, but his skill set suggests otherwise. We only learn about his past and why he’s such an angry sot until about 2/3rds of the way through, and don’t learn why he wants his car back so badly until the last 2 minutes. (Because a Rover…not the car to get killed over.)
I’d suggest the propriety of character death also depends a great deal on the stage of the storyline youâ€™re currently in.
Right now I’m running a sequel to a swashbuckling campaign after a years-long hiatus. Swashbuckling normally tends to be a relatively low-loss genre – but this time we wanted to see these same characters in a no-holds-barred, save the world scenario; this is their apotheosis, their greatest battle. I started the stakes-raising right off with my old PC contacting the others from beyond the grave, asking them to finish what he’d started and investigate this Big Bad that was brewing. So far two of six PCs have died in the effort (one of them after undergoing a huge amount of growth and development) and both players have been extremely proud of how it all went.
I like steak. Especially a good thick one that has been rubbed or marinated in something spicy and rich, then cooked at a high temperature for a nice crisp exterior, without making it too tough, and leaves the center cool and luscious.
Except for at breakfast. I really like eggs with cheese and a south-of-the-border zing, like roasted Serrano peppers. And dense coffee.
Death in RPGs is the same way. Not everyone likes the same thing, or even at the same time. How death is handled depends on the tastes of the group and the genre conventions, and it’s something that should be explicit before dice hit table.
And now, I’m hungry.