The Von Show #10 – Death and the Games-Master
Do you fear that dark abyss? All your deeds, laid bare… all your sins, punished?
Well, tough shit. You failed your saving throw. You know the drill – three dice, six times, in order!
This week, the Von Show will tackle a subject dear to my heart – death Specifically, character death. More specifically still, player character death.
If you really want to know how a particular GM rolls, how they think and feel about how RPGs should work, their idea of the perfect game – ask them about killing player characters.
Some will respond with a flap of the hands and an assurance that their PCs can only die when it’s dramatically appropriate. Some will give a hearty belly laugh and tell you it’s part of the fun, it wouldn’t be an adventure without risks to life and limb. Some will grin evilly and say they pride themselves on doing it! Some will shake their head regretfully and insist that they’d not fret so much about killing PCs if they didn’t take so feckin’ long to generate.
System’s definitely part of it, you see. In the simpler systems, and there’s nothing quite like AD&D for this, character generation is simply a matter of a few die rolls, a few choices, and some generic starting gear. You can get that done in a few minutes and then it’s just a matter of waiting until the party can pick up a new member from their next swing through civilisation.
In some systems, though, making a new character is a game in its own right. The sundry World of Darknesses are a good example for this. Character generation is done by a ‘points buy’ method where you have A, B and C pools of points to allocate to X, Y and Z sets of stats, then D, E and F pools for ?, !, and # sets of skills, and choices about your character’s morality and background and powers that all have to be represented mechanically, and since it’s a game that’s built around theatrically developed characters it’s slightly harder to just whip up a new one.
All this means that losing a character is more of a thing in some systems than others. You’ve gone to all that effort of telling me about a vampire, about who they are, where they’re from, who they can count on, who they’ll stand by, and negotiating with all the mechanics that represent those things in the game. It’s probably taken at least an hour to make all those choices, more if you’ve had to look things up and think about making them a technically competent character with their dots in the right places for them to work effectively…
Having them beaten to death by three big lads with hammers in the first five minutes of a session means that’s wasted effort, really. I mean, it’s not like you can just drop in another identical character and pick up where they left off, it’d feel weird and artificial to have two people who are functionally identical in every respect running around.
In other systems, character creation isn’t so… frontloaded. The mechanical process of creating a character is quick and simple and where they came from, who they are, isn’t as important as what they’re going to do. There’s an adage among old-school D&D players that ‘backstory is what happens between level 1 and level 4’, and they’re sort of right. A character who survives their first few adventures becomes sufficiently tough that their continued survival is likely.
They’ve lost friends and allies along the way, and they may well have replaced other members of an adventuring party that might be running on real philosopher’s axe territory. If every character in the party has been replaced at least once, but none of the players have left the game, is it still the same party?
The point is that it’s sort of expected there that characters will die, and the system is built to make death mechanically easy to deal with. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s just a matter of rerolling yet another half-orc barbarian who comes trotting around the next corner, meets the party and is all “hail and well met, I am Jassipus the Belligerent, and I see a green smudge on the floor. Mayhap you’ve lost a green fellow who’s handy with a greataxe? Perhance you need another?” Oh no.
Mechanics are only part of the issue, which extends into how death is treated in different games. For instance, here are some words by a chap who calls himself Kent, and is either a crank, a wanker or a genius, depending on who you ask. Kent says, of roleplaying,
“The greatest challenge for a DM is to make a player’s hand tremble as he rolls his die. A balance must be struck between fear in the player’s mind that his character just might die and a feeling that his character is irreplacable. This is why DMing is an art. It requires judgement, taste and headache inducing concentration. It is also why the notion of a DM as a transparent referee is flawed. Any player whose character I have killed would have considered the idea of playing on that day with another character a sick joke…
…In an effort to allow a character time to become interesting I feel a responsibility to avert disaster before dice are required when players are playing well. So while foolish play and unlucky dice rolls can always kill a character, a combination of good play and unlucky dice rolls killing a character would make me feel guilty as a DM.”
And he runs something resembling AD&D, so it’s clearly not as clear-cut as ‘death in this system works like THAT’. Really, how death works in a game is less down to the mechanics and more down to the GamesMaster.
So, with that in mind, let’s turn to a question from the audience. SinSynn asked me:
“Holy crap- what do you do with someone who’s character DIES?
‘Oh, sorry, buddeh- yer dead. I suppose we’ll see you when we start a new campaign, or…something.’
Or do you like, invent a quest to ‘see the wizard and bring our buddy back from beyond the realms…of the beyond,’ or somesuch?
I’m just gonna take a shot in the dark, and guess the party can’t ‘restart from a spawn point.’”
The one thing I think you should NEVER NEVER NEVER do is the first one. Never tell a player they should go home just because a character is dead. The real people in the room with you are more important than the unreal people in the game you’re playing (no matter what Jack Chick tells you).
How you actually deal with it depends on the game, and how I would deal with it depends on the game.
Say I’m running Dungeon Crawl Classics – every player has multiple characters precisely because some of them are supposed to die during the first adventure, the idea being to fast-forward into that “I am an adventurer, and I am here because I was luckier than half a dozen other people” kind of development, where you’ve already lost something to get to where you are. Player stays in the game as long as they still have characters left and if one player doesn’t have anyone left I’d probably ask the others to reapportion the characters or have that player run my monsters for me. No point in getting attached to anyone until the end of the first session (and a character who survives their first session has already been attached to through some pretty harrowing play).
But if I’m running Vampire, I don’t want anyone dying before they’ve had a chance to develop, so I take an approach that’s closer to Kent’s, and take advantage of the resilience of vampires in that system. They didn’t realise you weren’t dead. They did, and you’ve been taken prisoner by someone who knows what vampires are. You’ve been rescued by an NPC who wants something in return.
I don’t fudge die rolls, mind – you get beaten down, you wake up battered, injured, barely able to move, all mechanical penalties observed. I also don’t suffer fools gladly. Get caught in the sun, get set on fire, pick a fight with someone thousands of years older and considerably meaner than you, you’re going to die. But I won’t let an interesting character die just because someone can’t roll good numbers on a bunch of d10s.
If I were running proper D&D, again, something different. The game wouldn’t have Resurrection spells if they weren’t needed, but getting one cast is (or should be) a hell of an effort, with expensive/rare materials required for the spell, as well as a higher level cleric than conventionally goes adventuring with people. Is it worth it to bring back a first level character? Probably not. A beloved character who you laboured through half a dozen adventures to drag within a finger’s reach of third level? Maybe. A sixth-level renowned hero? Probably.
Setting factors in as well: in the D&D setting I’m intermittently working on, true resurrection is hard to come by but undeath is entirely possible for strong-willed individuals with a motive for coming back. Player characters who fall, who have allies who can perform or have performed the right processes, and who have the wherewithal to return (sacrificing a character level, becoming a mindless zombie if that means falling to level 0) can come back as sentient undead, with their own mechanics and their own place in the campaign world.
In some games I might not do that. I’ve done the ‘journey to the underworld’ thing for Warhammer Fantasy Role Play (following a Total Party Kill, the characters woke up in the afterlife and had to find a way home via persons or locations of extraordinary magical power – it was a blast!), and I’d also do it for something like Mage or Ars Magica where voyages outside the world we know and into mythic underworlds and astral realms are par for the course.
The point is that death should be an event in the story (in the game and of the game). In discussion on one of Lo’s Intelligent Design posts, Porky and I got to chatting about the difference between death of a character and elimination of a player. One is an event, one is not. Watching other people play games, especially after an event that feels like ‘losing’, is not fun for many people.
Having a character fall at a moment of high drama, though? That’s good. When I ran the demo for Goblins of Golarion a few months back, all the goblin bickering stopped for a few minutes while the party’s first fallen member was cremated at the insistence of their cleric. The shift in tone brought by a character death there was genuinely moving, for me and the players, and I wouldn’t have not had that for the world.
You can break ASAP for the players to commiserate and celebrate the victorious dead, or you can play on, depends on the mood. The important thing is to keep the player involved – not just passively, watching other people play, but actively, running NPCs or monsters, waiting for the moment to bring back the dead or bring in the replacement.
Kill characters, by all means, but never eliminate a player. Player elimination is reserved for asshats, and killing someone’s character because the player’s an asshat is missing the point. I might talk about that next week, unless you lot think of something more interesting. Ta-ta for now, though. I’ve got zombies to paint…
(Quotes from Kent are aggregated from various entries:
but it would stand you in good stead to read the rest.)