Death is Dumb

edited June 2009 in Story Games
So it came up in the Death thread, I said:
I find death and the potential for death pretty boring in games. I am much more interested in the fallout of failure that you have to live with.
Wanted to talk about the impact of character death as a play motivator. Lots and lots and lots of games have death and the avoidance of death as the prime mover for action. In play we get into fights and work to not have our characters die, yet in my own history and a lot of others, the DM does his damndest to avoid that (fudge rolls, throw softballs, etc.). And I wonder if that is just folly.

I mean, character death can be damn cool. In a BW game I played in for some two years, the game ended with three characters dying. I got to sacrifice my character on the enemy's sword to create an opening for his death. It worked, but my character could have easily died well before that.

In my own design I work to avoid it, making it more a choice than chance, but I still leave some element of chance in there. So all of this begs the question, should death even be in heroic games? Should it be something left to chance?


  • Posted By: Keith Senkowskishould death even be in heroic games? Should it be something left to chance?
    I really like the way this is handled in The Shadow of Yesterday. Death can't really be at stake unless you go there, which is only going to happen when it really, really matters. And if you get too awesome, you transcend the hell out of the story - which could be death if that's what makes the most sense. So there's a lot of fine-grained control over how player character arcs get resolved, with just enough chance to keep it interesting. Keith, your "end of campaign bloodbath" story made me think about one of ours.
  • edited June 2009
    It's fun to think of avoidance of death both from the character's viewpoint, and from the player's (as it can affect them, and in some games is "Losing").
    Like "Adversarial D&D" where the DM is doing their damnest to kill the characters ;)

    Edit: I'm also coming up with a post on how mechanized sacrifices rob emotional impact.
    Edit 2: And here's a preliminary version of it.
  • Death is one of the great motivators of real people -- and thereby of our fictional pawns -- but in a sublimated way, usually. Look at Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs: right there at the bottom are the ones that we need to stay alive. By taking those out of the equation, the game/story/whatever is no longer about survival in a very real way, and it lets our play and design focus on more "lofty" topics, from sex to security of property to morality and creativity.

    This can be handled in games in a variety of ways. Off the top of my head:
    1) Death can be ignored -- death is not an issue in this game; characters cannot die under any circumstances (or only in very extreme circumstances); examples: Mouse Guard, Dust Devils, and (I think) Conspiracy of Shadows, though I will admit to having not played it; possibly Dogs in the Vineyard, although there is some debate about how lethal games tend to be;
    2) Death is a semi-inevitability as a consequence of protracted play -- most campaigns of this game, when played long enough, will end in death or some other form of character transcendence/apotheosis/retirement into non-playable status; examples: The Shadow of Yesterday, Ars Magica, Hero's Banner;
    3) Death is a transitory or avoidable outcome -- PCs can come back from the dead, either as ghosts, some other undead, or by simple resurrection; examples: In A Wicked Age, at least one form of traditional-play Dungeons & Dragons, most video game "RPGs".

    That said, death is something tangible and (arguably) easy-to-define. It's usually binary. A character is dead or not dead. Play is driven by the character being not-dead, so they strive to maintain that state. It's tougher in design and play terms to create situations which mirror, say, spontaneity (picking something from the peak of Maslow's pyramid at random), as clearly and as compellingly.

    Does avoidance of death necessitate a new "prime motivator" as I seem to be suggesting?
  • Some video games bring it forth in an interesting way BTW. Some have it the DnD way: You die and you keep on going. Some have it differently, when you die, you need to "Shift-time" back to when you weren't dead.

    This brings forth both the loss of time, and the more interesting point, that one can perhaps meddle with thematically: If there's Fate, then rewinding time should not save you, what does it say about necessity of action if when you die you can rewind?
  • My wife doesn't mind her character dying, she minds making a new character, easily the most miserable and slogging part of gaming for her.
  • Posted By: JDCorleyMy wife doesn't mind her character dying, she mindsmaking a new character, easily the most miserable and slogging part of gaming for her.
    I agree entirely with your wife.
  • Man the best thing about character death is getting to make a new character. Y'all must be doing it WRONG.
  • Posted By: Ice Cream EmperorMan thebest thingabout character death is getting to make a new character. Y'all must be doing it WRONG.
    I suspect that the frequency with which you play, the length of each session of play, and the frequency with which you switch games may be giving you a very different feeling about that than I have.
  • Posted By: Ice Cream EmperorMan thebest thingabout character death is getting to make a new character. Y'all must be doing it WRONG.
    Try Anima, Shadowrun or Weapons of the Gods. :-)
  • Posted By: AndyTry Anima, Shadowrun or Weapons of the Gods. :-)
    *ahem* Or HERO. And I love HERO. And I love making characters. But, yeah, LONG process, if not 100+25 or similar "Heroic" level with liberal use of pre-existing Packages.

    On a related note (MAYBE thread drift--you tell me): I once played HERO with a guy who built a PC that, rather literally, could not be killed. Every little point (after a handful of background stuff like Profession) went to massive PD/ED, Power Defense, Damage Reduction, Regeneration, and even an Extra Life or two, IIRC. What did it do to play? Well, first off, he was the go-to guy for "hold them off while we escape, then play possum." Tactically very handy. And comic relief by the bucket loads: We'd be going back downstairs, to street-level; he'd be stepping out the window and just plummeting. He'd often use bits of himself as thrown weapons, just to freak the mundanes (cops don't tend to know how to react when someone starts to pelt them with their own ribs).

    Death is gaming is variously annoying (time lost, down time waiting), humorous (albeit darkly so, or in a "Redneck's Famous Last Words" sort of way), and/or saddening (more so when it's something like a related or dependent NPC). Which form it takes in a given game or group is primarily a factor of the tone of the game and the (dare I say it?) level of immersion in the fiction by the players. I can have a blast watching a character get struck down (even seven times: Paranoia); but you'd have to argue hard and long, and be a very serious play group, to get me into a session of A Flower for Mara.

    So... should death be in heroic games? Show me how to run Le Morte d'Arthur or 300 without it. Should it be left to chance? Are we playing Step On Up/Right To Dream or Story Now?
  • I recently ran The Combat Diaries as a playtest for Ogre Whiteside. One of the things I loved was how death was an expected part of the game with character creation so easy that play was not interrupted.
  • Death, and the risk of death, has a place in heroic games. What doesn't have a place is dramatically unsatisfying death.

    When Dirk MacStabbyblade vanquishes his archenemy, the Baron von Badmoustache, but suffers a fatal wound in the process, that's fine.

    When Dirk MacStabbyblade gets killed in the warm-up encounter because a Tiny Cave Rat rolled a lucky crit, that's lame.

    An idea I've been kicking around the last couple days is this: the dice can determine that a PC dies, but the player decides when and how. So when Dirk gets "killed" by the Tiny Cave Rat, he still gets to continue on in the adventure, but his player is going to be looking for a suitable point in the fiction to give him a satisfying death. Maybe he sacrifices himself to save his companions, maybe he dies killing the Baron, or maybe he gently slips away in his old age, surrounded by friends and family; whatever the player decides is a suitable end to his story.

    Or maybe, taking a page from video games, part of character creation involves coming up with a "good ending" and a "bad ending" (and several in between) for the character. Each time the character gets "killed", he has to settle for a less-happy ending.
  • Oh. I like playing my characters as if they really want to avoid death and injury. That is interesting to me, to be heroic, put oneself in danger, but still have a sense of self-preservation. I even played my Champions characters as if they didn't know that "normal" damage was being thrown around left and right, it looked lethal... it WAS lethal unless proven otherwise in the game fiction...not the mechanics. Despite in a game mechanic way, there is NO way my PC could perish... I played it as if he could... and could wipe out innocent bystanders.

    What was interesting about my recent PC death was the character had the trait: "Show No Fear."... which I clung to the very bitter end. I refused to surrender. I refused to back down, knowing full well it meant my PC was to die. But that was the way THAT PC was constructed.
  • I posted this in Judd's blog in response to a similar thought he had. I've tweaked it a bit:

    In the Godlike campaign I'm running we're rolling out in the open and the result has been more than a few shocking PC deaths. Lots of characters have built up quite a bit of backstory and attachment in the game, only to be struck down mercilessly when the bullets start flying. There is a real sense of loss. But the players seem to love this aspect of it (in some masochistic way I guess).

    It's all in keeping with the tone of the game we all bought into so it's all good.

    I think we've been playing to the "You are larger than life, but the war is larger than you," vibe pretty closely.

    Personally I love it. It makes the deaths of characters that have manage to survive for a while and flesh out their portrayal really hurt, a real shock. Many of the PC deaths in the game have seemed unfair, cruel fates for the ones that died. But I'll be damned if it doesn't say things about the pain of war that I have not experienced in other games.

    We had a character go out a session or two ago. He just got unlucky and was killed by an artillery round in a moment of panic and confusion. It wasn't a particularly heroic death. He was a great character, one we all liked, and the player gave him a relatively happy personality. For the other characters, he was like a bright spot in all the horror around them, and then that horror reached out and took him.

    What a gut punch. He didn't deserve to die, but y'know, in war, deserve's got nuthin' to do with it. This character's death has had a real impact on the characters too, because the players see that it should. The result has been some very interesting character moments for the survivors.

    That character's death also happened when another character was doing his best to save him. The would-be rescuer was absolutely running the same risk of death to try and get to his pal, but the dice didn't take his life. The player put his character into that situation willingly, pretty much with the expectation that he would die, but he was going to try and get his buddy out of there, even if it cost him his life. That alone made the scene totally dramatic and gripping.

    All dice, mine and the players, are rolled in the open. So we play with table stakes - the characters' lives.

    I also want to add, that somehow, I think the group has been playing their characters so that rather than having a "satisfying death" narratively speaking (because there really isn't a satisfying death in a gritty war story), they're playing their characters so that they have a satisfying /life/, because that's what needs to be remembered.

    Makes it all very emotional, even profound, and by god, these are some satisfying game sessions we're having.
  • Posted By: Mike Montesa(because there really isn't a satisfying death in a gritty war story)
    I have to disagree. Random, meaningless death is dramatically satisfying in a story about the horrors of war, because it emphasizes the idea that in (gritty) war, death isn't heroic or meaningful.

    If I was playing in a gritty war story game, I would absolutely expect that my character should be able to die at any time, even if -- hell, especially if -- I had really cool plans for the character. That's kind of the point of gritty war stories.
  • I should have worded that differently. From the POV of the characters, random meaningless death is not satisfying, it's shocking and traumatic. From the POV of the players making this story, it is very dramatic and satisfying. No doubt about it.

    I know the players in the game I'm running really want to see their characters survive, but there's no way at all to know if they're going to make it through the next firefight or not. Indeed, they do expect that they can die at any time, and in this campaign, they do more often than not.
Sign In or Register to comment.