Friday, July 15, 2011

Character 'Death' in Fantasy Role-Playing Games

One of my best friends, and a regular at my gaming table, Eric Lytle wanted to share his thoughts on role playing games and character deaths. He's a great asset at the table, and I thought his observations might demonstrate some interesting differences underlying game play for modern gamers versus "grognards."

Illustration Copyright 2011 Jody Lindke

I HATE character deaths in fantasy Role-playing games, for the most part. I certainly think death has a valid place in the milieu. I can't recall ever running away from an encounter, ever. And for this reason I've had many characters die on me. The most telling example is 1st edition Basic D&D where this is pretty much the norm. Even printed adventure expect DMs to be killing characters left and right. I've rolled up at least 10 characters for a level 1 adventure in basic D&D. As a result the cast of characters for our campaign include a cavalcade of boring faceless dead. I just stopped putting any effort into developing them. They were ammunition in a gun. Not the richly developed characters;with character links to other players, emotional ties to NPCs, well developed back story that creates good heroic motivations for actions, that I usually enjoy playing. When the first basic D&D came out and there was nothing else to be had on the market I'm sure that I would have been fine with it. My introduction to the RPG scene was much later. I started really heavily playing paper and pencil role playing games with Star Wars D20, which is a cinematic role-playing game about being awesome(read Jedi Knight). It's certainly not the wild west days of RPGs anymore.

As a member of the RPG 'new school' it is my expectation that character death is not an imminent threat. Party level balanced encounter design is the norm for new school RPGs and I think this is a good thing. It takes a lot of headaches away when the maths is all figured out for you. Game expectations are to tell a collaborative story and not an antagonistic one. GM and players are working together to have fun and tell cool stories. There is no sinister villain behind the DM screen trying to kill the player characters anymore.

As a player I want character death to have meaning. I get attached to the characters create and unless it's a character I was provided for a 4-6 hour convention game I'm looking to create long story arcs with them because I sure as heck have imagined an entire back story for them even if it's not written down or well articulated to the other players. And even when I'm playing a 'con' game I want the death to be meaningful. I didn't pay money to have some GM bully me for six hours and finish the story with "I'm sorry you died".

As a GM I don't want to frustrate my players or have them feel like I overwhelmed them. The goal is to tell a heroic story. If the high critical zombie minion takes out the Dragonborn paladin with a lucky shot its not that heroic of a tale. PC death can be an interesting part of the story but it should come organically from storytelling not from opposed tactics and lucky dice rolls. Sure the villain should be trying to stop the PCs from interfering with their plans. But there are many ways to be 'taken out' of a situation that aren't lethal. Setbacks are great in these kinds of games. But having to develop a new character in an established game because of chance shouldn't be a goal or a byproduct for fantasy RPG play.

This is specific to Fantasy RPGs (i.e. D&D and its clones). I can see the value in having disposable characters for other types of role-playing games. Character deaths in a gritty noir story or a Lovecraftian horror story make a lot of sense to me. Check out Sean Preston's discussion of Grittiness in Savage Worlds in regards to Bennies at Reality Blurs. Although to be honest I'm lying about this point. I still hate character death unless it serves some story purpose. Rob Donoghue talks about character death in Fantasy over at his Some Space to Think blog (with Game of Thrones spoilers), which also touches on how it adds that gritty feeling to the genre. It is unthinkable to kill your characters in other genres too. Doc Savage and friends aren't going to be biting the bullet in your pulp RPG.


Sully said...

Life is fragile, and in a medieval fantasy world, often cheap. Not every character can be the hero every time. Its up to the players and the DM to work together to make the best story out of what the dice give them. And with all due respect, in 4E D&D, it takes a whole bunch of unlucky rolls to kill a player character, or a whole lot of poor player decisions, or a combination thereof.

That being said, character death is what you make of it. It makes no sense whatsoever for the gameworld to only throw level-appropriate encounters at the heroes. If the heroes decide to go somewhere they know to be dangerous and full of monsters much more powerful than themselves, they shouldnt be surprised when they run into an encounter appropriate for a party much more powerful than themselves.

Of course, you can always just get raised from the dead and keep on adventuring.

Unknown said...

I think people hate dying in games when it is sudden. I had an old 2nd edition game I ran about 4 years ago and a friend of mine played a ranger. Ranger's in 2nd edition are kind of bad ass and he just charged everything. He died (and this was hilarous until people realized how much it would cost cost to raise him) by a gruop of kobolds. I kept rolling 20's. He was a little pissed about it. Later on in the same campaign they were fighting a powerful mage and he died saving the party. Which was something he not only didn't mind, but kind of appreciated. Take that for what you will. :)

Marshall Smith said...

@Sully - That simply is not the kind of game I want to play. I want to play Big Damn Heroes, not grunts in a Vietnam scenario. Also, cheap death paired with cheap resurrection just results in cheap games. The game should either be gritty and lethal, or fantastic and immortal. Trying to pair gritty and immortal just doesn't work.

@Christian - Loved the post. You hit most every point I've made in recent conversations about this.

One other quick point: I think that one of the severe failings of many RPG systems is that the only possible consequence of losing in combat is death. It requires a ludicrous amount of effort to have the PCs knocked out, only to wake up later in captivity. And yet, that is such a classic element of so many stories. Just changing the definition of "running out of hit points" to "unconscious" would solve a LOT of problems.

chibiaion said...

Its inevitable yet a choice for your own. Much more like the the real world if your don't fight well you'll die, after survival is the game. Well at least in this game you have always the option to restart, yes? buy aion accounts

Marshall Smith said...

Survival is only the game if you want it to be. For many of us, merely living makes for a boring game. Especially as you are more likely to survive by going home, marrying a wench, and raising fat babies. As Joshua said, "The only way to win is not to play."

Video Games Reviews said...

no big words of mouth, but if you ain't gonna give it a try then how come you say its hard (impossible) and if you aint gonna play you ain't gonna win