September 21, 2015

Character Death

Today, I present another guest post from Reinhart at Chaos Engineering. This is a two-parter, so stay tuned next week for more on the topic!

Character death: It happens. I think we can all agree that death has a place in stories in roleplaying games, but there are few topics more contentious in gaming. There are plenty of traditionalists who enjoy how characters in D&D and The Call of Cthulhu can die suddenly and without warning. There’s also strong and vocal support across the roleplaying hobby for treating characters as protagonists who are less likely to die a senseless death. Both sides get vilified too much for what is really just a preference in playstyle.


Given the rancor on the subject, you might suspect that these playstyles are incompatible. The thing is, so long as everyone at the table is playing respectfully and talks about it ahead of time, there’s no reason this disagreement has to be a deal breaker. There’s plenty of room for compromise, and if you’re smart, that compromise doesn’t even have to be a zero-sum game.

First of all, if you’re going to find a workable compromise then you need to understand both sides in this tension. A lot of the disrespect I see around this debate is because neither side truly understands the other.

The Case for Random Death

Why would anyone prefer a random death? Well, it comes from a very basic principle of role-playing with dice: play to see what happens. A lot of players enjoy the tension that comes from being uncertain about what is about to happen to their character. Many GM’s enjoy not being in complete control of every situation, and sometimes they need to feel a little less culpable in the decision to remove player characters from the story.

Additionally, random death isn’t so random.  Some people play RPGs to play a game of make-believe instead of to tell a story.  Part of that difference is “what’s there is there.”  In the make-believe game, if there is a death trap there, it’s there; and if the PCs touch the wrong part of it, they will die.  Make-believe style play favors verisimilitude over narrative.

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s nothing wrong with wanting and enjoying this style of gaming either.

The Case for a Dramatic Death

Where’s the excitement in a game where you can’t die until the story demands it? If you’re seriously asking that question then you need to go read up on stakes. Just because character death isn’t a lurking threat, doesn’t mean that anything or everything else isn’t up for grabs. The problem with random death is that outside of some expensive D&D spells, it’s pretty damn final. Of all the things that could happen to a character in story, death is probably one of the least interesting because it generally closes off more possibilities than it creates.  

Just as most GM’s run with some basic scenes, challenges, and plot already prepared in mind, many players create characters with potential themes and plot points they want to explore. As a result when the dice end a character prematurely, there can be disappointment with both the player and the GM.

Don’t be a Slave to the Rules

Obviously the players and the GM can always decide to ignore the rules whenever they become inconvenient, but players can find it jarring to just “take back” a roll or consequence like that. It’s generally better to solve the problem before it even starts. Like most RPG issues, the best time to address this is at session zero.

If you and your players all hate random character death, you should probably learn and use a set of rules that don’t emphasize that element. D&D or Call of Cthulhu are great games, but they both have game mechanics that can kill characters without warning. If you don’t want to play that way then maybe pick a game like Fate to tell your story. If you don’t want to learn an entirely new set of rules then perhaps have the players collaborate on crafting their own house-rules for death and dying.

Negotiate the Stakes

Even once you and your players have decided on the rules that best fit your playstyle, there’s still a lot of leeway given to the GM as to when and how character death happens. When a player character heroically runs into a burning building, and the building collapses on them, you don’t have to roll for damage. Their life or death at that moment is should be determined by what makes sense and what is the most interesting result for everyone at the table.

Good GMs are open about the stakes that the players are risking. Let them know when you feel the scene is warranting life or death decisions. “Do you really want to run back into that building? It looks like it could collapse at any moment. It would probably kill you if you got trapped inside now.”

Likewise, during session zero, each player should be very honest about how survivable they expect their characters to be. They don’t all have to agree to this equally, either. One GM that I’ve played Delta Green with suggests that players volunteer for random death by writing “DNR” at the top of their character sheets. When the tension ramps up, those players can usually look forward to a sudden and interesting demise.

I like the DNR house-rule, but as I discussed before just because a player is against a random death doesn’t mean they’re opposed to a dramatic death. For that reason I like negotiating the terms of character death openly when discussing a player’s goals for a character:
  • How do you see your character ending up in this campaign?
  • What would be a suitable heroic arc?
  • How could it turn tragic?

These questions aren’t just there for me to help direct the story, but also to help the player anticipate and recognize what fates are appropriate for their character. Many players accept an eventual demise better when they’ve already accomplished some of their goals and their doom conforms with how they expected their character to die.

Pacing Your Doom

Even if everyone is alright with the rules and dramatic circumstances that govern their demise, there’s still a certain combination of logistics and art to determining when to kill of a character. If your player characters really can drop out of the story at any moment, make sure that players have a developed replacement character. If you and your player characters like to have developed backstories and lead-ins for your player characters then that means perhaps there should be occasional insertions of the back-up characters into the narrative before they’re eventually needed.

Regardless of whether death in your game is random or dramatically orchestrated, it tends to leave one player with less to do and a lot less to get engaged with. For that reason it’s best to plan for death near the conclusion of a session or adventure. For those of you letting the dice determine this, that means planning and designing your adventure so that more lethal threats are introduced later and near important milestones. Players are generally more accepting of their characters being murdered by the villain of the plot than they are by a random owlbear they tripped over in the woods.

Do it Right

A player’s character is often the only way that the player can interact with the shared imagined world of your RPG.  Few systems allow players to manipulate events or storylines without a character.  So death is a big deal.  Death is “game over - at least for now” for a player.  Using session zero, thinking about what mode of character death you want to include in your game, preparing for the type of game you want to run (and doing it right), and taking care not to waste your players’ time all contribute to solid GM skills -- regardless of how you want to run character death.

This is part 1 of a two-part series. Stay tuned for Part 2: Death Omens - a house rule for nearly any RPG that might satisfy all types of players!