This week is essentially going to be my one week treatise on death in RPGs. Yesterday and today I'm going to handle the basic concept of death. What it is, how it works, and why it matters effectively. Tomorrow is going to be the GM perspective of things and Thursday is going to be the player side of things. Friday, for discussion, Ill see what stories we can share about memorable character deaths, good and bad, and hopefully along the way we'll get some good commentary going on about death in our games. That out of the way, let's continue.
Types of Death
To get back on topic for games though, RPGs have 2 types of death. The first kind is the random death. The dice fall, they add up to a number, and that number is bigger than the PC can handle so they die. This could happen in a random encounter, or it could happen in a big boss fight. Either way, the point is that it was the dice that decided the death however fair or unfair that is. The second kind is the chosen death. This is when the player takes an action and clearly states that they don't care if they die doing it. Maybe it is a direct trade with the GM (my life for X, Y, or Z) r maybe it is just a "if you do X you could die" responded to by "that's ok, I'm doing X."
Chosen deaths are trickier because they're more complicated. If the dice kills someone you generally know what happened. Either something got ridiculously lucky, someone got ridiculously unlucky, or someone didn't assess their situation right (if you stay in melee with 5 hp against someone that does a minimum of 20hp per hit, that's your own fault!) If the dice were unfair, it is easy enough for the GM to overrule, fudge, or otherwise do something to fix it (provided the game allows for it, but that's it's own thoughts.) A chosen death on the other hand is the player's decision. The player is pointing the gun at their character's head and telling you to pull the trigger. They're ok with it. They understand. In this situation, for whatever reason, it is worth their character's life to do the action they are doing.
Now, in either situation the GM doesn't have to kill the character in question. But, they also can and in a lot of cases should. They should do it for a number of reasons, each having more weight at a specific time, but ultimately if the GM doesn't kill a character when the dice, the player, or some other thing that has control of the game decrees they are dead they run the risk of compromising a lot about how the game feels. Not always a bad thing, to be sure. It is, however, something you want to consider heavily before risking when running a more serious game.
The Weight of Story
Beyond the game play reasons for why a death should go through (I'll go over that tomorrow) there are also story reasons. As I said yesterday, death is a big deal to humanity as a whole. It's hard to find a story where death does not feature in some ways. Sometimes death is an obstacle to be over come, sometimes it is a release, and sometimes it is...well...a lot of other things. The point is though that we, as people, are fascinated by death and as such it is going to keep coming up in our stories and in our games.
Death adds weight to stories. Actions become more meaningful when we know a character can, and will, die for their actions. The lone knight slamming the door shut between themself and their comrades before turning to face to oncoming horde is dramatic and weighty specifically because in that moment we know that the Knight has chosen his own death in order to save the mission, his comrades, or something else.
If that Knight lives through the action it can actually rob the story of a lot of it's weight, especially if the knight lived by killing everyone that came at him. You can see this in action in the movie Serenity where River jumps into a room to hold off a marauding horde of Reavers (Reavers who, up to that point, the entire group had been desperately fighting and slowly losing to, and who had already killed at least one PC and critically injured another.) When the fighting stops and the door opens River is still standing, all the Reavers are dead, and all suspension of disbelief is immediately ruined as well as any weight of the previous actions taken by the characters. After all, how big a threat could it really have been if only one member of the group was able to take it all out? Furthermore, how weak does everyone else have to be to be outshone so harshly by one mmeber of the group?
The point to all this? Well, basically I am trying to say that death has a meaning. I can almost guarantee that death will come up in your game at some point because we're hard pressed to not have it be there. When it comes up though you have the choice to either let it mean something or to risk ruining the weight of the story by giving a pass (we'll talk more about this tomorrow as well.)
Of course, even if Death in and of itself is meaningful, this is complicated in games too. Why? Well, because players love...
At present I am 30 years old. I have been gaming since I was about 10 or 11 and GMing since I was about 12 or 13. So, all in all I've got about 20 years of Player experience and 18 years of GMing experience under my belt. Less than some of you I'd imagine, but more than a lot. In those twenty years or so of gaming I have, literally, only seen a small handful of scenarios where a PC sacrificed their life for the group/mission/story and it was not meaningless.
Now, the sacrifice being made meaningless comes in two flavors.
The first flavor is because there was no need for the sacrifice. This happens when a player, for some reason, decides that it is time for them to make the Hero's Sacrifice and tackle the demon off the cliff into the lava. They picture it in their head as an action that has to be done to save everyone. In truth though? The rogue just hit the floor behind the demon with a grease vial and the wizard's about to use an unresistable force bolt to shove the demon into the pit thus solving the problem without PC sacrifice. Other times a PC just gets it in their head that someone has to sacrifice themselves to stop the big bad or buy time and save the other PCs when the fight simply isn't that desperate just yet. It's essentially a "Hero's Complex" for gamers, and when you think about it - considering the kind of stories we like and the kind of stories many of us want to tell - it's not all that surprising that it is a thing in games.
The second flavor happens when there is a need for the sacrifice but the rest of the group refuses to let one person be the hero. I've taken to calling this "Learning From Gandalf" after the balrog situation in Fellowship of the ring, but in truth it's different from that in most situations. Usually the players just don't want to lose a PC. They want to get everyone out and don't want ot have to deal with learning a new character or losing that particular PC. Other times they're banking, hoping, on the fact that the GM wont kill anyone because then they'd have to wipe the whole group if they all go back. Even still other times the group just doesn't think the GM wouldn't put monsters in front of them (or behind them) with the purpose being anything but kill them all. Either way it always plays out the same thing. One person realizes the situation and makes the decision to sacrifice their character for the good of the group. Then, one other person (sometimes more) realizes what is going on. they point it out to the rest of the group. The cry then goes out that they "can't just leave him there" and everyone goes back.
This second flavor can be truly annoying because it often shows a distinct lack of thinking on the player's part in the moment, and it also completely ruins what could have been a very awesome (indeed, a crowning moment of awesome) moment for the person who had opted to make the sacrifice. I have had 5 PCs drown because they all jumped into a freezing river without the ability to swim trying to save the 1 PC that actually had the swimming skill. The kicker? The drowning PC had already made the checks to survive his trip down the river. I've also seen groups wipe themselves out when everyone rushes back into impossible odds trying to stop the lone fighter from buying them as much time as posisble. In both these cases it was a campaign ender.
Either way though, these fall firmly into deaths that the player has chosen. The question I'll leave you all with though, is does that make it enough to give the death real meaning or would you reverse those if you could for the story?
Tomorrow we'll go over the GM perspective of things (my view of it at least.) Then we'll likely revisit the concept of meaningless vs. meaningful sacrifice when I go over the player's perspective on Thursday.
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