Death, Flaws, and the Magic of Role-Play

Death is something player characters see a lot of. They investigate it, they cause it, and some of them experience it (in D&D sometimes more than once). But what do they think about death? PCs also make life and death decisions, some good and some bad. How do they experience those decisions and live with the consequences? Finally, how do these questions lead to better roleplaying and an enhanced experience at the gaming table? I have some ideas to consider.

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Death​

Death is a large part of the vast majority of table top RPGs. PCs tend to inflict death much more often than they experience it, but anyone who has gamed for very long likely has stories to tell about a beloved PC who fell while adventuring. Death is something PCs are likely to consider deeply. Here are 1d6 ways that a PC might view death and 1d6 ways they might view dying. These ideas don’t directly correlate to any religious beliefs in the real world but are based more on speculation, myth, and fiction.

Death Itself​

  1. An enemy seeking to destroy.
  2. A foe to be opposed.
  3. An impersonal force.
  4. A power that can be bargained with.
  5. Something implacable, inevitable, and unstoppable.
  6. Natural part of the world and nothing to fear.

Dying​

  1. Things get worse. Souls might go to a dark underworld and linger there for eternity for example.
  2. It is the end. That person stops existing.
  3. Nothing comes after for those who are not worthy (worthy being something the PC has to define); they fade away if they are found wanting.
  4. A new journey and a new chapter. The person lives on in something similar to the current life they had but with an even greater purpose. Odd Thomas, the novel by Dean Koontz, presents an interesting view on this idea.
  5. The person ascends to something greater and goes on to serve a greater cause.
  6. Rest. White shores and a far green country.

Flaws​

PCs also have to have to make life and death decisions on a daily basis in a way few of us in the real world have to face. Does your PC make the right decisions most of the time like Aragorn? Screw up and summon the balrog by accident like Pippin? Or lose his mind completely like Boromir?

If you’re running the One Ring like I am, or playing a game like Call of Cthulhu, some of these questions get woven into the rules as well as the setting. But sometimes, a player needs to decide if their PC ever really loses control or makes a stupid choice. Bad dice rolls can make a PC fail an action, but player decisions can sometimes lead to possible catastrophe and madness. If you were playing Pippin, for example, and the rules didn’t compel you, would you have looked into the palantir? Before you make the decision to say yes to something this grave, I’d suggest having a discussion with the whole table. Some RPGs encourage this kind of decision making, those choices that may hinder or even harm your PC or the entire group, while others offer no incentives to go with the probable damage a bad decision can make.

If the table, especially the GM, is okay with you trying out making a few bad decisions in character, you need to put yourself in your PC’s shoes. Figure out some minor screw ups to start with to try it out. See how your GM runs with the hook you’ve provided and discover how your character changes and evolves. Here are 1d4 ideas to get you started.

Flaws​

  1. You are impulsive when it comes to the unknown. You’ll walk through the magic portal or grab the weird alien object almost every time.
  2. You get angry when someone challenges your honor by accusing you of lying for example or of stealing something. You might react with your temper instead of your careful thoughts.
  3. You are greedy. If you see something unique that you really want you may take risks or alienate your companions to get the item.
  4. You are vain and can be talked into doing foolish things when someone appeals to your vanity and assures you that someone as talented as you can climb that sheer cliff better than anyone else.

The Magic of Role-Playing Immersion​

If you got this far but are still wondering, why think about these things at all, let me give you my thoughts. For me, having my character consider death deeply or make mistakes that are his own fault makes my character more human. In turn, these thoughts and decisions that might be quite different from what I think or would do create magic, a transmutation from rules and dice to events that take on a life of their own and may eventually become a story I want to recount to others. This magic doesn’t work for me if I only concentrate on rules and math and rolling dice. Sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes I want to become someone else and experience another world through their eyes. Since this is a shared experience, I also want to make sure everyone else at the table knows what I’m getting up to and I want to not hog the spotlight and let others experience the game in their own way as well.

If the entire table can mix their expectations and decision making together in a way that works for them, magic happens. Playing let’s pretend and rolling dice are transformed into events that form a shared story for the entire group. Thinking about death and dying or walking in my character’s shoes transform into a tool, like an RPG wizard’s staff, that I can use to assist me in weaving a spell of roleplaying magic along with those I’m gaming with. If we cast our RPG spell successfully, magic happens.
 

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Charles Dunwoody

Charles Dunwoody

J.M

Explorer
As you say, the “magic” happens when we stop playing to optimize the outcome in the game sense of “winning”. One alternative is to view our actions through the lens of “that’s what my character would do”, but that too can create un-fun situations for the other participants. In the end, maybe what really matters is whether our actions, as players, add or detract from the shared experience at the table. When everyone contributes positively to the shared experience, within the confines of their role, the emergent story can be terrifically unpredictable in a way that only RPGs allow. Even if it means looking into the palantir from time to time…
 

For me, that moment when, playing either a character or an NPC, when I no longer have to think what they would say or do, but I just know, is a magical alchemy. And for me, some of the best moments in gaming come from that, dare I say liminal, space.

If you got this far but are still wondering, why think about these things at all, let me give you my thoughts. For me, having my character consider death deeply or make mistakes that are his own fault makes my character more human. In turn, these thoughts and decisions that might be quite different from what I think or would do create magic, a transmutation from rules and dice to events that take on a life of their own and may eventually become a story I want to recount to others.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
"Death is a large part of the vast majority of table top RPGs."

I don't find this true. Many RPGs don't have death on the table in the first place except under extreme circumstances, like Superhero games. And among the others death does not happen "a large part" of the time except in games like D&D where escalating to lethal combat is seen as a ordinary method for overcoming challenges, plus the occasional silly-with-death outlier like Paranoia.
 

"Death is a large part of the vast majority of table top RPGs."

I don't find this true. Many RPGs don't have death on the table in the first place except under extreme circumstances, like Superhero games. And among the others death does not happen "a large part" of the time except in games like D&D where escalating to lethal combat is seen as a ordinary method for overcoming challenges, plus the occasional silly-with-death outlier like Paranoia.

I think you and I actually agree based on your examples (and I would also include Tales from the Loop except the NPCs get killed on a regular basis and I'd think for some supers RPGs depending on genre this might happen as well). Call of Cthulhu, Traveller, Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Warhammer, RuneQuest, The One Ring, Cyberpunk, Pathfinder, and more all feature the mortality of life and three of those are the top selling RPGs according to ICv2 right after D&D. Even in Star Trek, NPCs die often and sometimes even a PC. And in some Traveller versions your PC can die in character generation.

Are there RPGs without a combat section? Sure. I think Tales from the Loop doesn't have one and the GM just kills NPCs to set up an adventure and move things along. Might be a few others. But not in the top selling RPGs that I'm familiar with.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I think you and I actually agree based on your examples (and I would also include Tales from the Loop except the NPCs get killed on a regular basis and I'd think for some supers RPGs depending on genre this might happen as well). Call of Cthulhu, Traveller, Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Warhammer, RuneQuest, The One Ring, Cyberpunk, Pathfinder, and more all feature the mortality of life and three of those are the top selling RPGs according to ICv2 right after D&D. Even in Star Trek, NPCs die often and sometimes even a PC. And in some Traveller versions your PC can die in character generation.

Are there RPGs without a combat section? Sure. I think Tales from the Loop doesn't have one and the GM just kills NPCs to set up an adventure and move things along. Might be a few others. But not in the top selling RPGs that I'm familiar with.
Combat and death aren't the same thing. I'm in a discussion in another thread about Masks: A New Generation, a PbtA RPG about teen super teams. The same combat rules are used for social combats through throwing down with a big bad and there literally is no death component of them. The game even talks about with the exception of one playbook, The Doomed, how death is off the table. And for The Doomed, it's that they are Doomed and will eventually have to face that, like Raven from Teen Titans. You can't call that as a "large part" of play.
 

Toriel

Explorer
This article will be useful for games of Kult where the PCs start as regular people in the modern world. Death is featured prominently in the game where angels, demons, and ancient gods are usually major players in campaigns.

This can help players think on how their PC should react when facing life or death situations.
 

Combat and death aren't the same thing. I'm in a discussion in another thread about Masks: A New Generation, a PbtA RPG about teen super teams. The same combat rules are used for social combats through throwing down with a big bad and there literally is no death component of them. The game even talks about with the exception of one playbook, The Doomed, how death is off the table. And for The Doomed, it's that they are Doomed and will eventually have to face that, like Raven from Teen Titans. You can't call that as a "large part" of play.

As to your first point, I agree. But combat leads to death for many humans. Not always for non-human types of course. And supers may ignore the people in the thrown skyscraper or on the ground below, but for those humans, death is on the table. And to your point, death is included even in Masks as a possible option.

As to your last point I didn't make that claim about Masks and I don't plan to. I don't know anything about Masks at all except for what you've mentioned.
 

This article will be useful for games of Kult where the PCs start as regular people in the modern world. Death is featured prominently in the game where angels, demons, and ancient gods are usually major players in campaigns.

This can help players think on how their PC should react when facing life or death situations.

I would love to hear about how Kult goes with the PCs going from regular people to scarred veterans of supernatural battles.

Also, I've written a few more articles about conflict at EN World and Geek Native:

EN World: RPing Fear Traps in Battle
Geek Native: Enhanced RPing Using Fictional Violence
Geek Native: RP Rules that Affect Fictional Violence
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos

Death​

Death is a large part of the vast majority of table top RPGs. PCs tend to inflict death much more often than they experience it, but anyone who has gamed for very long likely has stories to tell about a beloved PC who fell while adventuring.
I leave it up to the players, generally, whether their characters die at zero health. There are too many interesting possibilities that could be missed if you force death on PCs.
Flaws
PCs also have to have to make life and death decisions on a daily basis in a way few of us in the real world have to face. Does your PC make the right decisions most of the time like Aragorn? Screw up and summon the balrog by accident like Pippin? Or lose his mind completely like Boromir?
Let's just say that Flaw and Fun begin with the same letter. I encourage all PCs to have a Flaw.

Fun fact: character flaws are in D&D 5! Who knew?
For me, having my character consider death deeply or make mistakes that are his own fault makes my character more human.
That's only if you're playing a human, right? 🤓
 


I leave it up to the players, generally, whether their characters die at zero health. There are too many interesting possibilities that could be missed if you force death on PCs.

I don't decide if a PC lives or dies. If a PC lives a dangerous life, they sometime lose that life. But whether that happens isn't up to those of us sitting at the table. Fate or luck or destiny ultimately make the call.
 


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