Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Problem with Death

There was a spate of posts on the RPGBA blogroll a couple weeks back regarding PC death.  Given the number of OSR-oriented blogs on the site, they were heavily in favor of the constant threat of death.  I am going to give an opposing point of view.

Long-time readers may note that many of my points were previously discussed when I talked about why "old school" games suck.  The comments, especially, dealt with the subject of random death quite a bit.

Death is Final

My single biggest problem with PC death is that it is final.  Your story is done.  That's all she wrote.  If death is an omnipresent threat, then I am much less likely to take risks.  If I'm being all careful and paranoid, then I'm not being a hero.  I am much more likely to laugh in the face of impossible odds if I know that there is another chapter coming after this one.  And I want to laugh in the face of impossible odds.  That's the world I want to escape to.

One of the frequent refrains I saw on the posts was, "Besides, if you die, you can just get resurrected."  You know what this says to me?  You don't want your character to die, either.  There is exactly as much risk for your character in a world with frequent death and casual resurrection as there is for my character in a world where death is rare and resurrection impossible.  Once you have a cleric in the party capable of casting raise dead, there is no more threat of death.  There's just a threat of having to shell out the cash, and, depending on the system, lose a Con point or something.

On a very similar note, death takes the player out of the game.  You have now been relegated to the position of spectator, until such time as you can make a new character and get that character introduced.  In simple hack-and-slash games, that may be a trivial concern.  Character creation is quick, and you don't care if the introduction makes sense.  In a game where the story matters, it's a much bigger roadblock.

Death is Cheap

You know what players don't fear?  Character death.  While players may bitch and moan, they accept that their characters are doing dangerous things, and may die.

You know what players do fear?  Losing.  That may be having their stuff stolen.  It may be losing an eye or a hand.  And the absolute worst fate of all is being captured.  Seriously, have you ever tried to set up a jailbreak scenario?  The hardest part is getting the players to submit to getting thrown in jail in the first place.  So I say, if you want to put a little spice in your game, take death off the table.  Instead, a TPK now means that you are the prisoners of the goblin horde.  Oh, and the goblin king is now wearing your armor.  I guarantee you the players will be a lot more upset about that.

One of the common complaints from people about having a game without death is that the characters can't lose.  If you are short-sighted enough that the only valuable or significant thing you have to lose is your life, you are missing out on whole realms of subtlety in the game.

Death is ... an Option?

Now, I want to temper some of my earlier statements.  I never want to take death completely off the table.  No matter what the campaign, characters should still be mortal.  (Well, with a few obvious exceptions.) 

If your character does something stupidly suicidal, he just dies.  Especially if the stupidly suicidal thing is disruptive.  This includes stuff like strapping grenades to yourself and leaping into the enemy ranks because you have Evasion and don't take damage from explosions.  Or deliberately insulting the king in the middle of his court because you think you can take on all his guards.  You just die.  And probably don't get to make a new character.

If your character does something heroically suicidal, he might die.  This includes falling on a grenade to save your friends, leaping from the castle walls onto the dragon's back, or walking into the nuclear reactor to shut it down (a la the death of Spock).  But, those are GOOD deaths.  Those are deaths you can be proud of.

If it is your character's time to die, he might die.  This includes things like sacrificing yourself for the greater good.  It also includes things like the final duel with your arch nemesis.  When the campaign is coming to a climax, death should be on the table.  That's part of what distinguishes the climax from all the other bits.

I don't hate PC death entirely.  What I hate is random, meaningless death.  I get more than enough of that in the real world.  If I'm going to die, I want it to be an awesome death.  If I'm going to lose in some way that isn't awesome, please don't make a stupid mistake or embarrassing failure be the last thing I ever do.


  1. I just got into this with a college friend on his blog and yeah, I agree entirely with what you said.

  2. Thanks! Nice to know I'm at least not alone in left field.

  3. Can't disagree here, but I will add Achilles line about fear of death from the movie Troy, "That's why nobody will remember you in a hundred years." Which does tie in to your comments about good deaths.

  4. Very much my idea on how death should be used in a campaign. Nicely done, sir.

  5. I agree that random death in an RPG takes a lot of the fun out of the game. It's one thing when your character is killed by the campaign's primary villain. It's another when your character is killed by a symbol of death inscribed on the wall of a random hallway.

    That said, I do think that character death, even random character death, is a necessary element of the game. For example, in a horror campaign, the constant threat of death might enhance the players' sense of fear and dread. That said, I think DMs need to consider very carefully what type of story they're trying to tell, and how death might help them that story, before they start killing players off at random. I also think they need to consider how they're going to reintroduce players back into the game when their characters die.

  6. @houserules3e - I don't play horror games, but I do understand that the assumptions would need to be different for that genre. But, I think that that rather illustrates that the norm should be rare death, so that the omnipresent threat of death in a horror game actually feels different.

    Also, I just want to reiterate that there should be ways to instill fear and dread without resorting to death. Maybe not so much in a horror game, but certainly in other games. Gruesome injuries, loss of possessions, psychological trauma, and, of course, failure to achieve story goals should all be on the table well in front of the final solution.