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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.
  • Cheap: It's not that the character is patently unimportant... Well, maybe it is. But really, the character's life is just not that important. It would be nice if the character could live through the adventure; but if he doesn't, that's okay because the character is easily replaced. This approximates the value of all the cannon fodder in any game world. A game like Paranoia is a good example. In that game, it seems the characters aren't that important. Each player has several clones of his character and half the fun is seeing how many different and creative ways a character can die.

  • Average: The character is of some importance, if for no other reason than the player spent an hour or more creating the character. Thus, the character is expected to survive for a while. From the designer's perspective, this is the default value. The character is important, but a character can be killed at any time. A game like D&D exemplifies this attitude pretty well. It seems that characters are important. The whole point of the game is for players to keep the characters alive long enough to achieve impressive high level and do amazing things. And yet, a character is never important enough to truly cheat death. Under the right circumstances, wandering monsters in random encounters can always kill a character.

  • Costly: The character is extremely important - So important that his death simply can't be left to random chance. At this point, killing a character takes something extra. Maybe only an important NPC or powerful monster can do it; or maybe it requires the consent of the player. And on the flip side, maybe it's expensive for characters to kill. Maybe when a character kills, he loses something - humanity, sanity, whatever. Or maybe for a character to kill, the player has to do spend a resource or roleplay the kill in exquisite detail. Or maybe killing is illegal and the criminal justice system in the game world is frighteningly efficient at finding and punishing killers.
The Causes of Death: How can a character die or otherwise fall out of play?
  • Death of the Body: Of course, characters can almost always die from physical trauma. Weapon hits and other injuries can usually take out even the most powerful characters.

  • Death of the Mind: If physical death isn't bad enough, the character can lose his mind. The classic example is Call of Cthulhu. All characters will lose Sanity and eventually end up insane, drooling and gibbering in the protective confines of Arkham Asylum or some such place.

  • Death of the Spirit: This is one step beyond death of the mind or body. Here, the character actually loses his inner spirit, his very soul. This can happen to Shadowrun characters when they send their spirits into astral space. There, the character's spirit can get into fights and die. If that happens, the meat body is well suited for organ donation or medical experiments. On the other hand, a character in a game like Sorcerer can lose too much humanity. When that happens, the character usually becomes an NPC in the hands of the GM. He's not necessarily dead, but he might as well be.
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.
  • Death is the End: This is the most brutal way of handling character death, and it's likely the most realistic. When the character dies, the character is irrevocably lost. The player has no way to raise, resurrect, recover, or return the character to play.

  • Death is Temporary: When the character dies, he is out of play until someone cares enough to recover the character's life. In this way, death becomes more like unconsciousness than death. This is especially true when the means to bring the dead back to life are cheap and plentiful.

  • Death is only the beginning: I think this was a tagline on the cover of the Kult rpg, but it refers to the notion that characters do not really die when they are killed. Instead, the dead characters live on in another form and possibly in another place. So, when the character dies, he becomes something else.
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?
  • The Dice: Designers usually let the rules decide the conditions for character death, and the decision-makers are often nothing more than dice. Sometimes, one crappy die roll at the wrong time is all it takes. Then the player must make a new character. This is considered somewhat realistic. After all, in life we never really know when or how we are going to die. It's even satisfying. Players play to the best of their ability and make the best decisions they can. Frequently, they don't mind the risk as long as they have the chance to make decisions leading up to the event. If the characters live, then it's a shiny victory. If the characters die, it's a learning experience and maybe it adds weight to the campaign.

  • The GM: Designers rarely give the GM sanction to blatantly kill characters. Cyberpunk 2020 does have a note about killing overpowered characters because the future is disposable, but that sort of advice is unusual. In practice, the GM almost always has the power to kill characters; and designers don't often address the point. When is it okay for the GM to simply kill characters? The answer for any situation will depend on the designer and the game.

  • The Player: Designers sometimes give players the right to choose when, where, and how their characters will die. Of course, this is grim business. Usually, players spend all their efforts keeping their characters alive. Yet, the opportunity to give a character a spectacular and worthy death appeals to some players. It's worth a designer's time to at least consider the possibility when crafting the rules for a new game.
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:
  • Expendable resources: Give the players finite resources they can use to cheat death. These might include plot points or victory cards. When all else fails, the player can use one of these to make the current problems go away.

  • Manageable resources: Give the players resources such as hit points, humanity, or sanity. The players then have a measure of responsibility or control over a character's life.

  • Character abilities: Give the characters abilities that players can use to avoid death. These include magic spells, special skills, and the like.

  • Items: Give the players items that can protect characters from certain causes of death. This might be the cheap way to get the job done, but it beats being dead.

  • Saves: Give the players an opportunity to save their characters. The ubiquitous saving throw is one way to do this. When faced with something unpleasant, the player may roll dice to reduce or eliminate the effect on the character.
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:

  • Character Tree: The player generates a group of characters. The player then rotates these characters in and out of play. When a characters dies, the player usually has the option to create a replacement and add him to the tree.

  • Improved Replacement: The player creates a new character, but the new character gets advantages based on how well the player handled the old character. Of course, the player is encouraged to play well because frequent character death will lead to weaker replacement characters.

  • NPC Replacement: The player gets to continue play using an NPC as his new character. This may work out pretty well, especially if the NPC had a connection to the old character. In some games, players may create or improve NPCs with money and equipment, so the player has a vested interest in the NPC. Also, some GMs assign NPCs to players, so the players inherit a sort of character tree. The designer can always choose to formalize this sort of relationship in the game's rules.

  • Serial Replacement: The player gets a new character that is basically the same as the old character.
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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