RPG Ramblings: Death and Games

What follows is a random train of thought, so don’t come to this expecting a meaningful conclusion: it’s a ramble, nothing more. I hope that you’ll add your thoughts and experiences at the end.

Whether you’re designing an adventure or writing a novel, death is a tricky thing. If the players know that there’s no threat of death, then many things lose their bite. What’s the point of a fight scene if I know I can’t lose? Why don’t we skip all the dice rolls and just cut to the chase?

On the other hand, random death can be an even greater disappointment. I’ve developed this fascinating character. He’s the heir to a lost throne, and he’s got to follow this cryptic note from his mother to discover what happened to his vanished kingdom, and he–Oh, wait, he just got killed by an orc bandit on the road. Never mind.

In between these you have the typical MMORPG, in which death is essentially a speed bump; you lose a little experience or time, and then you’re back on your feet again. It’s a compromise that serves the needs of the game – it’s POSSIBLE to lose a fight, and there’s some consequences, but you don’t lose the character you’ve invested hundreds of hours in. On the other hand, it’s a necessary evil; again, if I’ve invested a hundred dollars and a hundred hours in this character, I’d be furious if I ended up losing it to some random unbalanced monster. But it certainly changes the story – and it’s not something I like in a pen and paper RPG. In my personal work on Eberron, I’ve tried to reduce the role of institutional resurrection. In Sharn: City of Towers, I added the following section (page 20):

In particular, raise dead is rarely used on Khorvaire, and it is highly unusual to find a cleric or adept who has the spell prepared. Followers of the Silver Flame believe that warriors who die in holy service join the Flame after death, while the Valenar elves believe their dead join with the spirits of their ancestors. Even among the followers of the Sovereign Host, using raise dead is viewed as a challenge to the will and wisdom of the gods. This does not mean that there is no hope for heroes who fall in battle—but it is not just a matter of tossing 5,450 gp at the local priest.

In City of Stormreach, I took things in another direction:

Strange events sometimes accompany the use of powerful necromancy in Stormreach. In a handful of cases, foreign spirits have seized the bodies of those being raised. When Jorasco sought to resurrect the Storm Lord Delera Omaren, the risen warrior cried out in the tongue of the giants and killed dozens with lightning before she was returned to the grave. Another time, a pack of marut inevitables appeared after a member of the Wayfinder Foundation (page 130) was raised. The outsiders slew the adventurer and devastated the enclave before vanishing. Today, Jorasco healers use augury before performing major necromancy. But divinations can fail, and at the DM’s discretion, resurrection might bring surprises.

These paragraphs were influenced by two things. First, Eberron is a world that seeks to explore the logical impact of magic. Institutionalized resurrection would have tremendous social impact – and Eberron isn’t designed with that in place. So I want reasons why, if the magic exists, it hasn’t become a part of everyday life. Beyond that, I want death to feel significant. You CAN be resurrected, but that should be a story in its own right and there should be consequences. In one adventure I ran, someone was killed in the monstrous city of Graywall and the group sought assistance from a priestess of the Shadow. She DID raise the victim… but he came back without a shadow. His shadow now belonged to the Shadow – and had the campaign continued, some very interesting things would have happened with it.

These three approaches – no death, trivial death, let-the-dice-fall-as-they-may random death – are just that, three approaches. There’s many other paths to generate tension even if the players aren’t personally worried about death. You can threaten allies or intangibles (reputation, rank, etc). Perhaps the danger isn’t THEIR death, but rather the broader impact of the failure of a mission. In one adventure I played in, our party was killed in battle & then resurrected by a traveling cleric – a perfect example of the MMO trivial resurrection style. But one of the PCs was pregnant, and it was an ongoing source of tension as to whether the battle had affected the child. I’ll note that sex and pregnancy in RPGs is an entire topic in its own right – “Life in RPGs”, if you will. I’ll simply say that in THIS campaign, it was a natural extension of a relationship that had developed organically and that it ended up being the driving story of the campaign, as opposed to some random DM caprice. As in this situation, where a threat to the child was a sufficient source of tension that it didn’t matter if WE weren’t going to die.

And even in a campaign where there’s no casual death, there’s always the opportunity for a GOOD death. I was a soft touch back in the day and would rarely kill players… but every now and then a situation comes up where a character SHOULD die: a heroic sacrifice, a shocking event that establishes the nature of the major threat, the successful completion of a character arc that really leaves no other story you want to tell. In such situations, it can be better to have the character die and move on than to live at the expense of the story. This is a strange thing about Fiasco. In most RPGs, we play characters we like or who we’d want to be, if we could. In many sessions of Fiasco, the point is to make a story about bad people making stupid decisions – and often these characters SHOULD come to a bad end. If you play your character as a hero and try to push him to a triumphant do-the-right-thing ending, you may well derail the story. It’s a game ABOUT exploring dark places and unpleasant consequences, and it can be a transition for people used to being the victorious good guys.

Another game with a different approach to death is Dread. In Dread, conflict resolution is done by pulling pieces from a jenga tower. If the tower falls, you die. First off, this means that at some point in the course of the game, you can be pretty darn sure someone will die. It doesn’t even leave the suspense in the hands of the gamemaster; the fate of your character rests solely in that tower. One way it does empower the player is offering the chance for a heroic sacrifice; any time you want, you can choose to knock down the tower, sacrificing yourself in place of another player having to make a pull. You don’t have complete control over your life, but you can always choose to die heroically

All this ties into my current project, Phoenix. In Phoenix, you are a unit of elite soldiers thrown into terrible situations. You may be in over your head, and there’s an excellent chance you won’t make it through your mission… and if you survive this one, the next one’s likely to be even worse. Luckily, you’re a Phoenix. When you die, you come back stronger than before; death is, in fact, the main method of character improvement. But you don’t come back right away… and you only get to come back eight times. This has two consequences: first, you can fail. Most missions are time sensitive. If your entire unit dies, the mission will fail. You’ll all come back – but the objective is lost and you’ll have to deal with the consequences. Second, while you CAN die and return, there is a clear end to the road. Your first death is no big thing… but by your sixth death, you need to start being careful. And without going into too much detail, the circumstances of your death affect your next life. What this means is that rather than working to avoid death at all costs, or ignoring death as meaningless or trivial, death becomes a critical part of the story. You are going to die, eventually – but can you make that death mean something? What lessons will you learn from it? Can you make it matter?

There’s a lot more to say about Phoenix, both the game itself and the other people working on it. It’s not an approach that would work for every campaign – but it’s ideally suited to the world we’re creating, and it creates an interesting and different sort of story. But more of that in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you handle death in your games? What do you do to raise the tension?