Games Culture One: Musings on Death
The death of a player character is a contentious topic on the realms of tabletop RPGs. In fact, the finality of character death in TTRPGs is one of the defining differences between those games and the CRPG cousins, with their infinite resurrections. TTRPGs are played with hardcore mode enabled as standard.
The points of contention seem to come in terms of whether PCs can die, when they die, and who controls how they die? In this article I’m going to lay down how it works in our games and why we have settled on these assumptions within our play.
Can a Player Character die?
Yes, yes they absolutely can. In fact, many campaigns I have been involved in have been enhanced by a character death. In our recent Werewolf Accelerated game, the death of one character, relatively early in the game, span off an entire arc of guilt, acceptance, and redemption for my werebear that I cannot imagine how the character would have proceeded without it. In our Symbaroum game, the death of one of the original party at the hands of religious zealots fortified the party’s opposition to the zealots and underlines the brutality of the game.
However, death should mean something. Random, petty death is meaningless and does nothing to help the game. In fact, in my eyes, it underlines a certain sort of play – very popular for some people – that I personally dislike intensely, as it reduces the game to a personal challenge against the system to ‘win’ by surviving longest against the odds. That’s not what I game for at all. So let’s do something different with death?
But when can a Player Character die?
Now, this is the crucial point, isn’t it? In our games, characters die in two particular circumstances. Under a death flag and when the player chooses.
The Death Flag is something that was introduced in our D&D4e campaign, but it merely solidified the assumed rules we had worked under for some time. PCs only die from encounters that are critical story moments – usually encounters with a campaign ‘big bad’ or in a point of massive upheaval. They are the times when heroes live or die by their actions – and this is the window into the reasoning.
We roleplay through a lens of emulation, rather than simulation. Our games look to movies, books, and cinema for their narrative patterns. And you can count in the fingers of one hand the number of times the title character in one of these works of fiction dies in the first twenty minutes after a lucky shot by a stormtrooper or falling off a building because their superpower failed (one in one hundred times) etc. That would be nonsense. Similarly, in our games, PCs can be defeated through failure but they are not killed unless ‘the death flag’ is raised. A clear signal that this could be deadly combat because of its position in the narrative.
Indeed, this attitude creates some interesting emergent play. We have less ‘grind’ in our games where we fill our sessions with endless resource-depleting encounters. In their place, we tend to use skill challenges, etc. to show the PCs moving around or through the minor minions. This, in turn, means that we can focus our resources on the few, meaningful encounters – and this leads to more ‘oomph’ happening during them because you start on full resources. This does lean our games towards the EPIC but hey, that’s how we like it.
The second time is when the player wants them to. Sometimes, you just know it’s right for the story for your PC to exit gracefully from the game. Sometimes you feel like you’re not gelling with your original concept and want to try something new. In both situations, approaching your GM and asking for a character death is the simple solution. It gives the GM the chance to build some amazing drama into a scene, the PC gets to go out in a blaze of glory.
This opportunity allows for the game to have those dramatic deaths that pepper our fiction, without the randomness of someone just dying because a random goblin got a critical. It may be an old joke, but we all know that in The Lord of the Rings, Boromir’s player’s shifts had changed and he couldn’t make the game anymore right?
[As a sidebar here, I’ll mention that all of these things can also be achieved through character retirement as well. Parting ways with your fellow heroes and heading off to fulfil some other quest is not unknown and well, as we will see, isn’t always a way to avoid death!]
So who controls how they die?
The final part of the jigsaw of death is the method – what terrible fate awaits our ill-fated heroes?
In a death flag situation, the threat is clearly a player vs environment one, and as such the combat itself will dictate what happens. However, if a PC is going to die we remember that they are heroes. They don’t just fall over, nor do they get a reprieve. However, they do get to go out on their terms. That might be dying in the arms of their lover, or demanding that the others go on and fulfill their quest whilst they hold off the hordes single-handedly with only half a clip of ammo. Respect the character and their story and give them a send-off they deserve.
In a chosen death, the GM and the player usually come up with an idea or the player makes decisions in the game that lead to a moment where they narrate their character’s end. In the aforementioned Werewolf game, the ill-fated PC was hanging off a bridge over an abyss, whilst all hell was breaking loose around them, holding onto my PCs hand. He chose to let go and perish to save everyone else. Note, in the game there were 101 different ways we could have stopped this, but in the fiction and through the wishes of the player, this was the right thing to allow to happen.
For a retired character, in my games, they are fair game. Two characters retired in our Symbaroum game; one ended up as the thrall of a spider queen and was the ‘little bad’ at the end of the campaign, providing an emotional punch for his in-game brother, the other wandered into the Davokar to pursue becoming one of the Iron Pact and was killed at the stake by the Templars in revenge against another killed, escalating the rivalry between the PCs and that faction to all-out warfare. Even in these situations, death served to further the story.
What about resurrection?
As a sign off to this piece, I’m going to address one piece of emergent play that I have realised is a direct response to this philosophy of death.
In all my time playing in this way, I have never seen a character resurrected, reincarnated, revivified, or otherwise yanked back into the mortal coil. It just does not happen. We don’t have quests into the underworld to bring back souls or any such nonsense. Why? Because we respect the story and the wishes of the player for their PC.
That had never struck me until I started to write this. I wonder what else we do that has changed the way we play?
Next Up – Part Two: Rejecting the urge to shop