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Thursday, 11th October, 2012, 01:25 PM #1
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Beginning at the End: Character Death
How many characters have you lost? How many in D&D? How about Call of Cthulu? How many in Monopoly? Poker? How many times has everyone at the table died? How many times have you been the death-dealer?
Death in RPGs is an interesting point of design, because it drills down to the heart of what it means to “win” or “loose” a game, and into a reason why RPGs are different than your usual board games. So come along with me as I analyze what character death can do to your game, and how you can make that choice work for you!
Putting a Morgue on Baltic Ave.
Clearly, not all games risk death. It’s obvious: to have a character die, you first need to have a character, right?
Yet clearly, all those games without characters still risk failure. You can lose at Monopoly, or at Chess, or at Candy Land, all without ever risking that ultimate critical failure of existence.
Seems obvious, no? Why would you have death in a game with no characters? Well, the distinction isn't as clear as all that necessarily. Candy Land’s narrative is that you’re kids exploring a fantasy world. Not so different from D&D, really. It’s also not so hard to see the leap from Chess to wargames, where the abstract pawns are replaced by little representations of people who, frequently, die. In droves. In those games, the game continues on after the death of Nameless Private Artillery Dude #6, because the game isn’t about that guy, it’s about the conflict in which he plays a small role. And in Candy Land, though you can certainly lose, none of those kids ever die or get diabetes or anything.
I know I’m talking about Candy Land kids becoming diabetic and this is probably a sign of severe mental distress, but stick with me for a minute. What this big view tells us is that even without death, there can be stakes in a game other than death. It also tells us that even with characters, and death, death need not be the end of the game. If you made Candy Land an RPG, no one would ever die. If you made Chess an RPG, death would be handed out quite frequently (especially for pawns).
We Are All Nameless Privates
One of the major psychological shifts RPGs take you through is of closely identifying with one particular game piece. To play that role of that game piece, you start to ask yourself what that character is like, to properly judge what they might do in a given scenario. You give the character a personality and a pattern of behavior, even if that personality and pattern isn’t any different from “what I’d do if I were this person.” Thus, you develop a pretty deep empathy with your character, not unlike the empathy that develops from a protagonist in a narrative. You see the world through your character's eyes, and because of that, you want to see her succeed and advance and not be crushed by that deadly trap she just set off. It's stressful to watch her come close to death -- and exhilarating, too.
You begin to actually care about this game piece as you personify it. Ten minutes ago, it might’ve been Nameless Private Artillery Dude #6, but now that it’s a person, and now that it’s your character, you become much more invested in her survival. In playing an RPG, you’ve successfully anthropomorphized some statistics, given them a reason to exist, and thus, began caring about them as more than a method for victory. It’s not a game piece, it’s a person.
Ah, but it’s still a person in a game. So there is winning, and there is losing. In early D&D, these were pretty explicit: the goal was XP and treasure, and if you failed, your character was dead.
There’s a tension here. D&D first asks you to care more about that nameless character, and then tells you that if you lose, you don’t get to care about that character in an active way anymore. They become a memory.
Measured in this light, with winning represented by continuing to exist, early D&D was easy to lose. It was random. You might open the wrong door, drink the wrong water, reach for the wrong treasure, step into the wrong room…death was easy, and, often, apparently arbitrary.
The mechanics of character creation were part and parcel of this set-up. Designed to be randomized and unpredictable, they weren't about building your ideal character, they were about giving you a new block of game statistics to inhabit, quickly. If you had some bad rolls and played a character ill-suited for the task of adventuring, it was up to your intelligent play (and luck) to make them last a bit longer. If you rolled awesomely, your reward was extra character power and thus likely extra survivability against the threats in the game. What character you were “stuck with” was part of the challenge, almost a way to set a difficulty level for the game. It didn't matter if this character wasn't everything you imagined a character could be, because this character, like most other characters, was going to die. Not everyone can win every game, after all, and if winning is defined as “surviving,” there’s one way to lose: to stop surviving.
That definition of winning and losing isn’t what everyone wanted out of the game, though.
D&D from its beginnings drew inspiration from works of fantasy fiction. Given that the act of anthropomorphizing your character is essentially the same mental process involved in caring about Frodo or Bilbo or Conan, it wasn’t long before RPGs started pulling away from the idea that winning and losing weren’t about XP and death. Sure, the characters in Appendix N often risked death to accomplish their heroic deeds, but Frodo wasn’t going to fall down a pit and die two days out of the Shire.
Why, then, should that be the fate of your halfling in D&D? If D&D was in part about being the center of your own adventure story, why did it tell such hilariously awful stories like “Billy the Fighter opened the door, but the door was a mimic, and then Billy died?”
Also, why were you forced to play a fat clumsy halfling instead of that amazing wizard you had in mind? Why couldn’t you choose your ability scores?
While we’re at it, why does my fat clumsy halfling care about raiding musty old dungeons? This is a world of high fantasy adventure, isn’t there some Dark Lord or evil artifact or great menace to take care of? Can’t my character be a little less mercenary and a little more heroic?
In other words, why can’t D&D work more like a story?
The demand was clearly there, but it’s not a question D&D knew how to answer right away. Should the game even be "more like a story?" Where would the challenge be, if you never died? Why should the DM be able to dictate a plot to you? The designers thus largely left it up to the DM to control the level of lethality in their game. Want your game to feature less random death? Well, you’re the DM, ignore the dice when they kill arbitrarily. Make it more like a story if you want. Whatever that means to you.
Meanwhile, other games were exploring the RPG space, and focusing on other things. While grounded in D&D at first, they went other places fairly quickly, coming up with new measures of success and new ways to fail. By the time of Vampire: The Masquerade, the idea of playing the role of a character in a story was much more enticing to a lot of players than the idea of playing some hapless mercenary in an arbitrary world of potential death (it was called the “Storyteller System” for a reason, after all). RPGs began exploring what it was like to change the conditions for victory and the results of defeat. Rather than death, losing became more narrative, more about your characters hopes and ideals and goals, and failing to meet them, than about life or death. Success was the same way: “winning” was accomplishing your character’s goals.
Character deaths, combats, and traps became quietly de-emphasized in a lot of games in favor of “role-playing.” In most games, this meant becoming very intimate with that anthropomorphic mass of game stats, deeply inhabiting and feeling their own victories and failures as your own.
To foster this, character creation became simultaneously more flexible and complex to reflect the desire for more intimate characters. You had the ability to pick your own traits, and the number of things you could choose from ballooned. Each character became more well defined, the better to be fun for you to play for a long time. You would become a character that was a self-expression, rather than the result of some die rolls.
Not that this won over everyone, of course. There were lots of people quite content with their less narrative, more game-like games. People continued to play with random characters, with the same win/loss definitions, and with death variously common or rare at different tables or with different DMs. They did this without once desiring deeper character identification, and, in some cases, even resisting it. Not everyone played the game in order to role-play deeply, after all.
And yet, D&D slowly, rather stubbornly, followed the same arc of de-emphasizing character death, and adding complexity to character generation, so that the more narrative style was more possible within it. The game never totally removed the possibility of death and random destruction, but it became less and less of a supported mode of play as the game aged. At the chronological and mortal extreme from early D&D, you have the most recent editions which adopted rules that protected against random death and also that supported more complex, more identifiable, more detailed characters. Balance became a more important creed, and carefully detailed encounter design (designing the one thing that could still kill a character) became more prominent. The game lost many effects that could kill outright, and amped up the power and resilience of even the weakest player characters. This was all, conscious or not, support for longer-term stories, longer-term character investments, and character-centered win/loss conditions and in opposition to a game of quick, disposable characters with clearly defined external win/loss conditions.
D&D, unknown perhaps even to itself, had undergone this shift from being a game about death and treasure to being a game about heroic deeds and menacing villains. In the process, it wound up dragging along people who preferred one style or the other into a game that wasn’t well suited to that style, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth alongside it.
Fortunately, we’re DMs, and we control the game.
Pick Your Poison
Once we have an understanding that character death is an option we can tweak, we as DMs have the ability to tweak it to our own ends. We can control this, and change it for our own purposes, knowing what effects it will have.
If you did have frequent character death, survival becomes the goal of every character. Throwing them in dangerous situations (combat and hazardous lands, especially) is a prerequisite. You might not tell an interesting story about every character, but some characters will win more often than others. You might want to explore randomized character generation, and you certainly want to streamline it, so that a character who is knocked out can come back in. You probably also want to limit the effect of things like character levels, so that advanced characters and beginning characters can be played alongside each other. You might want to specialize in one-shots, and the risk of character death might be anywhere between “1 character should die in every session,” to “every session should risk an entire total party wipe” (aka: Call of Cthulu Mode).
If you don’t have frequent character death, each individual character becomes a bigger part of the play experience. The game becomes more about the individual characters, and their personal goals and ideas, rather than about the broad goal of “not dying while doing dangerous things.” That safety lets people explore individual characters for a longer term campaign. Character creation can be complex, because characters are not disposable. Death, if you include it at all, should be something reserved for dramatic scenes. Mechanics like the Death Flag might replace normal death and dying rules.
Whatever your preference is, it's useful to know going into it what you want out of it. If you're going to be running a death-dealing mega-dungeon, you're not going to get a whole lot of character background and motivation -- and that's fine, since that would be superfluous for you. Meanwhile, if you've got a more long-term narrative in mind, more complex and developed characters are part of the fun, and seeing them succeed or lose is how the game drives your emotional response.
Once you know what you want, it can be a lot easier to achieve it.
-- Jacob D.
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