Monday, February 11, 2013

Handling Death - Part 1

One of the players in our saturday game died. They died well, in an explosion taking out a big bad. But the aftermath has turned out to be somewhat interesting. Not because of any drama, but because the thought seems to be dangling that there is a chance to bring the character back. Because of this thought, a lot of the people involved in the  have been debating the death, what it means for the story, and of course what it means for the game itself. Today, I figured I'd use this to get some thoughts down in front of me.

The Funny Thing About Death...
When you think about it, when people think about it, death is this big, scary thing that lies before us all. Some people call it the last adventure, a last journey. Some people call it a new beginning. Some people think it's just the end. In all cases though we don't really know what lies beyond it, and a character death is a big deal in almost every story telling medium. Except...when it's not.

See, fantasy RPGs are pretty bad about character death. Sure, people die, but is it really death when you can just drag their corpse to the local temple, donate 500 gold, and have a friendly cleric ressurrect your fallen comrade? Or if your druid friend can just reincarnate them on the spot? Comic books are laughed at by a lot of people because character's die, but they rarely stay dead. Hell, Marvel publicly promised when they killed Captain America that he'd stay dead for at least 2 years (I think it was 2 years.) Other forms of stories (soap operas, etc) have the "return from the dead" practically be a trope.

This isn't even unfair either. Most cultures have stories for people coming back from the dead in some fashion or another. The legend most people know about is Orpheus, who ventured down into Hades to rescue his wife only to lose her at the end when he looked back (breaking a rule) and thus couldn't save her. The Japanese have a very similar story with Izanagi and Izanami after Izanami dies giving birth to one of their children.

However, some games (and stories) take death more seriously. The first death is also of particular note here. The first death sets the stage for everything that comes after. Now, lots of people can die in a story before that first death happens, sure, but the first death of a main character (or a PC in the case of games) is decisive. Why?

First Impressions
The first death is the heaviest death because it is the first time that a story will have one and so it is very important. It is the first time that the audience (or players) experience the fact that their actions can cost them a character. It is the first time that the realization hits that we may have to say good bye to a particularly beloved PC forever and never see them again.

If that death sticks, if it is permanent, than other deaths will hold this weight. More importantly, scenes where death is on the line become that much more weighty. We understand, because we've seen already, that we may lose a character we love. We may have to say goodbye. That makes the possibility more real. It's where you'll see someone, even though they normally are the rush in head first type, show caution in a fight, try to disengage, or otherwise get help. As people come face to face with the possibility of saying goodbye, a goodbye they know is for real, then they start acting to protect what has value. In a RPG, particularly in a good RPG, is it any surprise that a character could become that?

On the other hand, if that first death doesn't stick - or really, if at any point a death doesn't stick - then suddenly the weight is gone. If a character comes back then the death is no longer a permanent good bye. It's a temporary inconvenience. Especially to the audience. For all the fear, joy, and other emotions you try to put into the scene if the audience (or players) knows that a character can come back from the dead they simply won't feel it as strongly. Once one character comes back it is only natural that other characters can come back. Then, suddenly, your game/story has to differentiate between dead and Dead. Supernatural is a great example of this. The first time Sam or Dean died (I forget which was the first at this point) it was big. The second time, not so much. By this point in the show, a main character that died literally had to choose to stay dead and not interfere anymore for it to become permanent. Now, Supernatural handles all of this very well, but even in that it's gotten to the point that if Sam or Dean end up in deadly peril all I really expect as a fan is that they're going to spend some time in some after life or another, and then escape yet again. Not a real big deal, is it?

((This is getting long. I'll continue this tomorrow with Types of Death and "The Weight of Story". We'll see what goes from there. Feel free to comment on things I've said so far, or your own views on character deaths.))


  1. I'm just about to start running a campaign in a world generated by the players using a whole bunch of houserules for Pathfinder. One of the things I'm most excited about is that there are certain things I can just make a judgment on right now before character creation even starts. My favorite change to the original rules is there will be no reincarnating or resurrection of any kind. I think that will make everything else that much more interesting! I hate the revolving door of death!

  2. I've only ever played one system that allows resurrection and that's Deadlands. But it comes with such a high price (demon possession) that no-one picks this option lightly and it changes the character. So character death still has a lot of impact in Deadlands, maybe even more because you may have to make a really hard choice.
    I like playing with high stakes and when my character dies as a result, I want it to be more than "well, let's cough up the gold for the resurrection spell".

  3. I had my first Cyberpunk 2020 death a couple of weeks back. Luckily - for the dude involved - Trauma Team were already on route, and he'd died from a comparatively minor wound, so he was only dead for a bit. I think the most important thing about character death for me has been dying well. Going out due to run of bad luck sucks - not that it shouldn't happen - but sacrifice for a noble cause, or biting the bullet in a final shoot-out are very much the preferred ways of shuffling off this mortal coil...

  4. Paul, I agree. Random death does suck but it is also a "part of life" in some games. Especially games such as Shadowrun and Cyberpunk where you WILL get insta-gibbed if you stick your head out at the wrong time and everyone knows that that is on you.

    Jebediah, I've never had a chance to play dead lands. That said, I have characters that would take that deal in a heart beat. Course, I also have characters that would never consider it, and others that would hunt those "resurrected" folks down like dogs.

    Brandon, rules like that are great to have going into the game. It solves a lot of confusion and also pre-empts a lot of problems. When someone dies they know it is "game over" for that character because the rule was set very clearly from the beginning. I hope you have fun with the game, especially since death can be deceptively common in any D20 based system.

  5. Holy cow! One of your /players/ died in an in-game explosion? Now that's an amazing description.

  6. Hahaha! I messed up on that. Hate when I do that. I mean the character :P