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The Impossible Dream

#8: True Death

by Hunter Logan
Jul 17,2003


In most rpgs, characters can die. Whether they ever actually do or not is largely a matter of design philosophy, player skill and GM/player desire. In any case, this installment is all about character death.

Defining Death
It's a good idea to begin with a definition of character death. On one hand, a character is dead when he meets the conditions for death according to the game's rules. That's when the character runs out of hit points or fails the critical saving throw, or something similar. On the other hand, death is not always the end. So, I thought about my own definition for character death.

I think a character is only truly dead when he is permanently removed from the player's control. Death is not really about the character's mind or body; it's about playability. A character can be bent, twisted or mutilated as much as anyone wants. As long as the player can still play the character, that character is still alive. When the player can't play that character any more, then the character is truly dead.

This definition may cause problems. If a character dies but only stays dead long enough to get resurrected, then I say the character isn't really dead. Yet, the player is inconvenienced and may need to play another character to stay active in the game. Meanwhile, a character may lose all of his humanity and become an NPC for the rest of the game. Even though that character is still alive, I say that character is truly dead because the player can't play that character any more. This definition affects my approach to character death.

Approaching Death
Most designers (and GMs) have a philosophy on death for their games. Sometimes, the PC's life is fragile and characters are easy to kill. Other times, the PC's life is rugged and characters are extremely hard to kill. Sometimes, death is serious business. Other times, it's a source of humor. Sometimes death is permanent. Other times, it's a doorway to character evolution. Here are some factors that a designer may consider when forming an approach to character death.

The Value of Life: How important is the character? If the character is important, then characters won't die very often - At least they shouldn't die very often. If characters aren't that important, then they might drop like flies. This works as a scale that runs from cheap to costly.
The Causes of Death: How can a character die or otherwise fall out of play?
The Nature of Death: As in TV shows, movies, and comic books, death is not necessarily the end of an rpg character. In some games, characters can be resurrected or brought back. In other games, the character may live beyond death as a disembodied spirit, an undead, or as some sort of supernatural creature. In a few games, characters even have serial lives. Here are some ideas about the nature of death.
The Decision to Die: Who decides when and how a character dies? On the surface, this seems easy. The vast bulk and majority of games put the conditions for death in the rules. A character takes too much damage, and he dies. A character loses too much Sanity and goes insane. In these events, the character dies; but who or what actually decided the character would die at that particular point in time? Was it a die roll, the GM, or the player?
Avoiding Death
Just as designers consider all other factors of character death, designers also consider methods players can use for avoiding character death. Here are some possibilities:
Integrating Death
Like any other part of a game, death can be integrated into the game design. I don't think there's a play flow for death. When a character dies, it's an outcome, not a process. Damage is part of the process; death is a result of the process. Yet, processes surrounding death might be part of a death flow. For example, a character is poisoned. The player attempts to save against the poison. The save fails, so the character is dying. Another character uses an item to stop the poison. If the item works, the character is saved. If not, the character may die after all.

Planning for Death
As a final thought, designers might consider their plans for character death. often, the plan is pretty simple: When the character dies, the player writes up a new character. While this is a perfectly valid plan, it's not always well suited to a particular game. Here are a few other possibilities:

The End?
This wraps up character death. If you have questions or comments, about the article, please post them. I'm interested in what you have to say. Thanks for reading, and especially thanks for all your comments and discussion.

Now, I have bad news. I don't like it, but this article wraps up my column (at least for now). I haven't run out of words or topics, but I have run out of time. I hope that after a few months, I'll be able to pick up again; but I can't make any promises. Therefore, thanks to Aeon and Allan Sugarbaker. Thank you for giving me the space to run my articles. More important, thanks to everyone who has read my column. Thank you for reading, and I really do hope you've enjoyed my articles. Most important, thanks to everyone who has taken the time to write any comments or discuss my column here in my little forum. Thank you for caring. It's easy to ignore the columns, or to read without commenting. It's something else to read a column and care enough to comment. I appreciate the effort and your input! You have made this column all the more worthwhile.

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