Death Doesn’t Bargain

– August Strindberg

Anyway, two or three conversations not long ago got me to thinking about character death in RPGs.  The predominant one was a resurrected thread on the L5R forums about how GMs thought about killing characters.  As Alderac is incredibly strict when it comes to forum management, my response was killed and the thread locked since the thread was too old.

The gist of my response was how unfortunate it is that so many people think of death as the only threat to characters.  This ties in exactly to something Brad said at DunDraCon about how he always wants to feel like his characters are in mortal peril, that it’s unsatisfying not to have the feeling.

Of course, there’s a genre element to it all.  D&D (RuneQuest, et al) have always been about resurrecting characters, something I will comment more upon.  Comic books kill off their characters constantly, but they return at nearly the same rate.  Swashbuckling adventure not so inclined to demises.  And, so on.

The view of many L5R GMs is that the world is supposed to be very deadly.  Though, I still fail to see a close connection between L5R and samurai movies, the latter seeing much carnage.  I don’t have a counterargument to this.  L5R was predicated on deadly combat.  Fourth Edition isn’t particularly deadly, certainly far, far less so than earlier editions if you look at it in terms of speed of death, i.e. I see 4e combat being as deadly if not more for PCs but it takes three to five times as long to get there, so it’s nowhere near as instantly deadly.

I have two problems with the focus on character death.  The first is that it may be in flavor, but it’s a hassle logistically.  The second is that there are all sorts of other ways to fail that get overlooked when focusing on death as the threat to where the story takes a back seat to mechanics.

I suppose for some groups it may not have come up, but every time a PC dies, it creates a number of logistical issues for the play of the game.  Having a new character come in who isn’t too weak or too strong (in that all of the effort of the players who didn’t “fail” is undermined by a new character coming in at comparable strength) is a frequent problem, if one that varies immensely.

One poster pointed out that his party no longer had any of the characters who originally were on the mission, so nobody in the party had a goal of accomplishing the party goal.  I’ve seen something like this with our RQ group.  Similarly, a new character may have none of the connections to the other PCs that the original character should have had.  I can’t stand the metagamey conversations when trying to introduce someone new to a party, the most egregious being when someone got tired of talking to a new character and said, “So, do you want to join the party?”

Of course, you can craft a background for a new character so that it fits in better with a group.  Actually, some of the best of this I’ve seen is when someone takes over a NPC that is around during play.  This has come up a number of times when playing Conan, usually more when someone is off stage then when a PC dies, though.

Then, a particular character may be essential to a particular story point.  The Chosen One dies … now what?  While it may be possible to work around, the point of gaming is to have fun, and the fun can be decreased when the story collapses.

So, integration of mechanics – Balancing new character strength.  Integration of thematics – Where did this character come from?  Why does it care about the party?  Why does it care about the party’s mission?  The legacy of the old character – Was the deceased important to the story?

Moving on.  Besides the logistical issues of characters dying (permanently or, at least, inconveniently, it should be pointed out), there’s what I consider a strange overconsideration for this result.

I think it comes out of a hack and slash mentality, where the adventure is framed within a context of plot-unregardable [see Deceptively Disinterested for definition] combat.  Sure, even in hack and slash, there’s the possibility of gaining or losing treasure, gaining or losing experience points for things like not murdering every enemy, or whatever.  But, there’s typically no coherent story, so the personal story elements come down to things like:  I murdered monster; I am now a 9th level ranger/4th level druid with an AC of -1 and a Staff of Woodland Creatures; I died.

Meanwhile, there are too many other ways to fail to list.  I like to use the example, since combat is so important to so many games, of a combat where there’s a stated goal besides defeating the enemy, such as catching up with kidnappers before they get away.  The combat isn’t about survival.  It’s about time.  Take too long and you fail, even if you murdered everyone in existence.

I’m not in favor, by the way, of mutilation as a form of failure.  I’m not alone in rather creating a new character than losing a limb or the like.  But, others may think differently.  Nor do I care enough about fantasy wealth to have lost money be a consequence that really matters, though wealth accumulation is a huge motivation for many.

Rather, I care about things like status, reputation, favorable NPC relations, saving the lives/sanity/whatever of NPCs, making the world a better place.  I feel bad when I can’t save a NPC I try to save or when the world gets worse because the party failed (not to be confused with when the party was fine with making the world worse, though that is its own issue).  I also care a lot about plot and resolution to the story.  Some of the worst failure can be not knowing how the story ends.  “What happened to the princess?  Kidnappers got away.  You will never know.  Losers.”

To provide more concrete examples, I’ll use HoR.  There was one mod where I could have jumped in front of a fireball aimed at something we were supposed to protect.  It didn’t really make sense to do, but it would have been character defining.  The failure to be more courageous doesn’t exactly haunt me, but the failure of making for a better scene is memorable enough for me to write about it here.  In another mod, I was into a side plot involving an artist and bought a huge amount of her work but, unlike many others, never got to meet the artist in the mod.  To an extent, some of these failures aren’t due to player choice but GM/player communication being faulty.  A clear case of actually choosing a poor option was when I could have assisted a geisha targeted by assassins out of town and decided not to, even if it was somewhat questionable in character as to the propriety of doing so.

Sure, I feel bad about lost XPs, lost possibilities for cool stuff (not to be confused with generic treasure) like the time I passed on trying to get a jade war fan for my character who was better with a war fan than anyone else in the living campaign and who was eager to oppose Shadowlands monsters, and other mechanical results.  And, these are also threats to characters besides character death.  But, just having an unhappy ending to a story, whether it personally affects the character in some way that isn’t death related like failing to get the girl or is external to the character, is enough for me to feel threatened by challenges that aren’t going to get my characters killed.

Finally, I was going to comment more upon the D&D, et al, model of (relatively) easy resurrection.  While it may be costly to get resurrected due to lost wealth or whatever, I find that death just becomes a joke in these sorts of games.  In part because you can come back, you are that much more likely to get killed.  The believability of the world just flies out the window with such a gamey mechanic, whereas in books and such, bringing someone back is dramatic and momentous and should be treated as such when gaming.  I thought it was cool when I started out a con game by putting a bullet through a character’s head – it brought home what it meant to be secretly an immortal.  When the conflict is die/not die, the game loses flavor and devolves into a mechanical structure that might as well be a videogame or a boardgame or whatever.


One Response to Death Doesn’t Bargain

  1. Azel says:

    Sounds like many an RPG devolving into lack of meaningful interaction with the setting world. Without much context for one’s actions, leaving the last meaningful one being whether or not your character “continues” then yes naturally things seem shallow.

    I like to call what you are talking about as the ‘soft consequences’ of failure. The ‘hard consequences” of failure involve direct loss upon your character sheet, or whatever. But the soft version damages the qualitative interaction your character has with the world. And for those who really dig the immersive role playing aspect of RPGs, this lever of punishment tends to be as meaningful if not more.

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