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You Wanna Fight?

A Pale Horse

by Bryan Jonker
Jul 08,2002

 

A Pale Horse

Quandary

No Flash page, but instead I invite people to go here and play a game. Come back - I'll be waiting.

OK, done? That is Flash, and frankly the skill involved in designing something like that makes me sick. But anyway, how many people did you kill (if you didn't play the game, it's similar to Quake or another First-Person Shooter game)?

Killing the bad guys is one of the ways to keep score. Role-playing came from wargames, and its ancestry shows. But role-playing is also about roles, and the characters can be more than a sheet of numbers. So, when a character dies, there's a duality - one is the real mourning of a real character, and the other is a "gosh, I lost the game." Even more confusing is when your character kills other NPCs. You win, but at the same time you've killed someone. This article is about how you deal with this quandary.

Definition of Death:

Grim Death took me without warning
I was well at night and dead at nine in the morning!
- On a tomb in Sevenoaks Churchyard, Kent

When we talk about death, most games have a sharp distinction between death and non-death. Some have an in-between state (in AD&D, it was 0 HP to -10 HP, and GURPS has a similar system). Of course, this is a simplification of a larger process.

There are four types of death. They are:

  • Irreversible Loss of Flow of Vital Fluids. The heart stops beating. This is the classical view of death - the heart stops beating and the blood stops flowing. The Greeks believed that the spirit resided in the heart.
  • Irreversible Loss of the Capacity for Bodily Integration. This is a little more complicated definition, but it is the definition most modern doctors and hospitals agree with. Modern medicine can keep the heart beating, the lungs moving, so a person could be kept alive indefinitely. The modern definition is when brain waves stop and the body cannot control natural autonomous functions, the person is dead.
  • Irreversible Loss of the Capacity for Consciousness or Social Interaction. This is perhaps the most ethically confusing definition. If someone is alive, but no one can prove it, is the person alive? Most people would say yes, but it places that person in a confusing half-state - the person isn't alive or dead.
  • Irreversible Loss of the Soul from the Body. In a fantasy world, the soul may be able to be detected. If this is the case, a new definition of death applies: when the soul leaves, the person is dead. Of course, in a realistic game, we can't detect the soul.

Of course, for other organisms, the definition of death may differ. Some organisms may be able to hibernate, or even have an out-of-body experience where the soul leaves the body. Other organisms simply cannot die, or are already dead. Of course, this may work for the GMs advantage. If the grunts don't die when sliced up, then there's less guilt about winning a battle.

Spiritual and Cultural Implications

Dear child! Thou hast passed through hand survived the labors of this life. Now it hath pleased our Lord to carry thee away. For we do not enjoy this world everlastingly, only briefly; our life is like the warming of oneself in the sun.
-Aztec prayer to the skeleton god of the dead, Tzontemoc
from Hero of a Thousand Faces, John Campbell.

In the real world, we really don't know what happens after death. In games, we may have a better idea - clerics wield power from their gods, and speaking with spirits is possible. With this knowledge, spiritual questions arise.

First is the definition of death, which we just covered. A cleric may be able to determine when a person is dead. Normally, it pretty obvious, but what happens if a person disappears? If the choice is try to risk your life to find a comrade, or assume the friend is dead and leave him? Communicating with a god and the dead removes the veil between life and death. Suddenly, someone knows what happens after death. Religion would gather more followers, and they would be more devout. If a person is guaranteed to a life after death, a life of paradise, then why not act good? But, if people know, then you don't need faith.

Part of the cultural implications of death is the death rite, whether it is burial at sea, burying, or immolation. Death rites are almost universal, and almost universally is represented as a journey, a passing onto a new life. They say funerals are for the living, and if death is treated seriously in your campaign, the funeral process can be an excellent role-playing experience. Often, funerals have room for stories, for the exploits of the dead hero and friend. People get together, and long lost friends (or enemies) may appear. Secrets get revealed, and there's always the last testament and will. The funeral service can also illustrate different cultures. One culture may celebrate death, and another may practice cannibalism.

Finally, there is cheating death. If people can be resurrected, would they recklessly endanger life and limb for a few thrills? Oh, wait, they do already.

Emotional Implications of Death

Dad to son: "Grandpa's in Hell and we're rich now."
- Teaching little ones about a death in a family - Mueller.

Every person handles death differently. The classic ways to deal with death is: Denial, Bargaining with God, and Acceptance. Other's deaths do not follow a predictable pattern. Here are some guidelines on how people deal with death.

  • The degree of relationship. People die every day, and somehow we manage to cope. However, when someone close to us dies, it affects us. In a campaign, this is key. In the stereotypical campaign, people die every day, and wars cause endless slaughter. But, when a party member dies, there's a "big deal".
  • Social roles. Some people are expected to faint when dealing with death. Other people deal with death every day, and become numbed by it - a sort of "bereavement burnout". Becoming numbed by death has its own problems - they often have problems reintegrating with society. A Vietnam vet talks about this. "When you're there you don't really remember what it's like to come back into the social context of a society where killing is abhorrent. And, when you come back home, you don't really remember the context of the combat situation, except perhaps in your nightmares." This bereavement burnout can explain some attitudes.
  • Values and beliefs. Some people believe that those who die go to a better place. Others are more cynical. This section is where the GM and players have the greatest leeway - some people simply aren't affected by death as much. Of course, in a fantasy campaign, some people know those who die go to a better place. Again, this could change beliefs in death drastically.
  • Personality. Again, some people are calm and don't let things bother them. Others are not as calm. Often, a depressive personality will be thrown overboard under stress, and death is the ultimate stress. Other people, like children, sometimes don't have the emotional maturity to understand death, and instead reconstruct reality to make things easier to deal with.

Legal Implications

I, _______________, being of sound mind, make this statement as a directive to be followed if I become permanently unable to participate in decisions regarding my medical care.
- New York Living Will, from The Last Dance, Lynne Ann DeSpelder and Albert Lee Strickland

In almost all cultures (with caveats), murder is seen as a crime. This seems self-evident in our day and time, but it bears examining. Part of the issue is our life force is seen as owned by us. Murder, therefore, is theft of the highest order; taking something that belongs to us. This lifeforce is what separates us from non-humans, non-animate things.

Based on this view, people or things that have no rights may not be protected. Slaves in the South, or Africans in England, could be killed without repercussions. In fantasy worlds, other races may not be considered humans. This isn't de facto, however. Greek slaves were still considered people and, thus, they could not be killed. Circumstances also affect legal issues. A person can claim self-defense, although it would be difficult to claim that lethal force was necessary. Similarly, police need to prove that killing was necessary. Soldiers, of course, are exempt from these rules.

How do you get a soldier to kill? Sam Keen in Faces of the Enemy gives some examples:

  • The enemy as stranger.
  • The enemy as aggressor - we're defending ourselves, our citizens, and our land.
  • The faceless enemy - we're human, and they're not.
  • The enemy as unholy - we are the chosen people.
  • The enemy as a criminal, uncultured barbarian, or socially unacceptable people.
  • The enemy as death - it's either us or them.
  • The enemy as a worthy opponent, and killing is a part of a contest.

I've covered this ground before in war, but it bears repeating. The Game Master needs to keep this in mind if he wants to have an all-out battle, but still keep things realistic.

When Player Characters Die

This brings us back to the quandary. When player characters die, there are two issues: "I died" and "I lost." I feel like I've been skirting the issue, talking about how people die and how people cope with death. What does this mean in a game? Well, it depends on the game. A dungeon crawl will be vastly different from an ultra-realistic game. I remember the first campaign I was in - we slaughtered orcs and, well, orcs. It was exciting, and we didn't worry about people dying or mortality.

Flash forward 15 years. I was GM, and two of the characters were involved with two NPCs. In one session, one of the NPCs was burned alive, and the other (a demon) was captured by an angel and exiled to Heaven. Complicated story. But, the gist of it is characters died, and it was emotionally strong.

So, what's the moral of the story? Use death as a story plot. Or use it at a way to keep score. Don't try to go both ways.

Again, I feel I haven't done enough on the subject. But, it's a touchy subject. Next month, it's the alternative to death: surrendering. Until then.

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What do you think?

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Wanna Fight by Bryan Jonker