Death in Roleplaying Games 4


This is one of those posts that I’ve talked about writing for awhile now, and I expect that a whole lot of people will disagree most vehemently with everything I say – in one direction or the other. It’s fine, folks. My comment section welcomes you as long as we all stay cool. Here we go.

The kind of roleplaying game I want to run or play includes a meaningful chance of permanent character death.

Let’s break that down. (Or, if you’re allergic to me talking about LARPs from 10+ years ago, skip to Tabletop Applications.)

 

The kind of roleplaying game I want to run or play…

This is my disclaimer that there are a lot of games out there for a lot of people, and you don’t have to want to play what I want to play. This is also specifically about roleplaying games, as opposed to many other wonderful types of games. There are even games that have all the trappings of a roleplaying game, but aren’t about narrative, emotional verismilitude, and the like. I enjoy many of those games! This post just isn’t about them.

The emotional perspective on a game you’re running versus a game you’re playing is obviously going to differ. I have slightly different specific reasons: when I’m running the game, I want the sense of stakes. When I’m playing the game, I want the emotional richness of grief and melancholy as part of the story. There are other things and NPCs to threaten and destroy to create stakes and a sense of loss, but I think that something is fundamentally lost if permanent character death is off the table.

 

…includes a meaningful chance…

This is a two-sided point. I want permanent death to be a possible outcome. Maybe that’s because character death is rare but irrevocable, and there’s a substantial “critical condition” rule. Maybe characters die on the regular, but most of the time they get brought back to life, possibly with a cost. There are multiple approaches here that all work for me.

I like for the sense of tension, threat, or doom to increase over time. My whole concept for what roleplaying games can and should be has been shaped by the aesthetic choices of the LARPs I’ve played. I mean, you start playing a game at 17 and keep playing it until you’re 25, and play its sister game from 20 to 29, and yeah, that’s going to be a huge part of your sense of gaming. SI had permanent death as a very real and not-infrequent outcome. There were occasional, very rare (what, like 3-4 cases between the two arcs?) miraculous returns – including my character, in a sequence that was as much of an emotional wringer as gaming has ever put me through. KG’s first arc had many permanent deaths. I’ve been told conflicting things about the possibility of permanent death in the second arc, and at this point it’s not an interesting question anymore. We as players absolutely believed that permanent death was possible, and made our choices accordingly.

Especially in SI, the resurrection rules were a well-kept secret. As a result, we players developed our own superstitions around them – good luck charms and so on, as well as our estimation of which of the different resurrection spells would be more or less harmful to a character’s short- or long-term chances. The gathering of the character’s close friends, the tension, and the relief or grief at the randomized result made a huge impression on me.

The only change I would make to it, in retrospect, is a greater Plot-and-playerbase emphasis on recording the dead. On-camera graveyards are a pain to place at each event and maintain, but maybe a cenotaph or an oversized tome. I don’t actually know how many permanent deaths there were in the campaign’s ten-year run, but I’m sure it wasn’t less than 40. I’d estimate at least 15 in the finale of the first arc.

The same largely applied to KG, but as the campaign was overall less lethal (though not for my character, aie), it was not as big a part of the game culture. One of the resurrection spells of SI was never introduced in KG, and another was completely reworked in its concept. Some specific permanent deaths changed the whole course of my experience of the story.

In one particular case from SI, a staffer apparently (I wasn’t there) told several PCs out-of-character that they were on their last “deaths” and the next ones would absolutely, no question about it be permanent. There’s probably more to this story, starting with the staffer’s perspective, but what interests me here is the players’ emotional responses. To wit, they quit the game, more decisively than if their characters had simply stayed dead. They couldn’t enjoy the game with the certain knowledge that their characters would be gone the next time they died – that flipped the players’ “play cautious rather than heroic” switch, and that was contrary to their whole mode of enjoying the game. The lesson I take from this is that player responses to accurate meta-knowledge around character death are deeply unpredictable, especially if the game’s culture is already strongly established.

 

…of permanent character death.

Obviously enough, the players who permanently lost those characters weren’t happy about losing their characters. No one expected them to be. Most of them went on to create a new character, and the setting did continue to acknowledge (usually in small ways) that their first PCs had existed. Every game should have chances for the souls of the dead to come visit. It’s just too useful of an emotional scene not to use.

I’m all in favor of metagame mechanics that ease the loss of a character, whatever those might be. That might mean that the new character gets a percentage of the previous character’s earned experience, so that you’re not starting from scratch again, or that new character options opened up in the course of play are only for new players or second characters.

I think, however, that “cheap” deaths shouldn’t ever be permanent. Get jumped alone in the dark by a bunch of spiders, entangled, and bleed out? It’s fine for the resurrection system to secretly acknowledge that – the death count makes your future odds worse in the normal way, but there’s a 0% chance of permanent death on that pull. Don’t announce that you’re doing this; you don’t owe it to players to disclose anything about your resurrection system, or to tell the truth if you do. If you do decide to lift some of the curtain, you can let it be known that a different undesirable (but temporary) consequence comes from “cheap” deaths.

I haven’t talked about Dust to Dust up to this point. To our surprise, there weren’t any permanent deaths in Dust to Dust until the final battle. Apparently there were rumors among the players that we had decided that perm death was off the table. These rumors were inaccurate, though there were some potential recovery-from-perm-death options in DtD as there had been in Wildlands South. I think a lot about how the absence of permanent deaths affected the game’s culture, but even two years later, I still don’t really know how to talk about that.

 

Tabletop Application

Now, the point of this post is to bring the feeling that I love from LARPing into tabletop gaming. Critical Role is a great touchstone example of how permanent death and the threat of it enriches a game that already has a baseline of emotional engagement from the players (to say nothing of the audience). The characters die semi-regularly at 10th level and above (the Vox Machina campaign), while Mollymauk’s death in the Mighty Nein campaign was… fairly explosive in Twitter and, from what I understand, the rest of the Critter community. I expect that a lot of that audience hadn’t engaged with the idea that one of these low-level, just-starting-out characters could die and stay dead, because emergent narrative can be utterly unforgiving.

In my own Aurikesh campaign, revivify works as-written, but raise dead doesn’t, and nothing is yet established to the players about reincarnateresurrection, and true resurrection. In 87 sessions with a total of 55 characters, there have been three character deaths, and several more cases of two failed death saves before recovery.

 

I Hope You Like Anecdotes

The first was a rogue who disrupted a necromantic ritual and ate the backlash that also destroyed the ritual’s caster; the rogue bled to death faster than the party anticipated thanks to a natural 1 on the death save. He got a raise dead, since there weren’t any 5th-level clerics in the team to revivify him. His soul encountered the Nightwalker, the master of the Ghostlands, who demanded a service in exchange for allowing him to be brought back to life. This led to a three-session side-quest with significantly character-altering consequences, as well as advancing the Nightwalker’s aim to return to the Living World.

The second was a barbarian who, between Reckless Attacks and getting paralyzed by ghouls, also got crit on repeatedly by an enemy paladin (mechanically, if not thematically, an Oathbreaker), and then eaten by the ghouls. You get taken down by ghouls, you should expect to get eaten where you lay.

The third was a fighter who had already had a couple of very close brushes with death, but this time squared off against an opponent he had possibly underestimated, and who was quite a bit luckier than the player could have reasonably predicted. As I sometimes say, the game is a lot harder when the DM can’t roll below a 15.

My point, I guess, is that Aurikesh has had literally dozens of characters, but I haven’t implemented permanent death as a mechanic, except that the rogue never found out what would have happened if he had refused the Nightwalker’s demand. I’ve had enough players involved for a long enough time – despite very high churn – that I think I can fairly say that the campaign has its own culture, as a LARP campaign would.

Back in college, I ran a game with a negotiated set of house rules for resurrection. With each resurrection, characters drew cards from a tarot deck equal to their number of deaths, and the table collaboratively decided on the effects suggested by those cards. The Tower never came up, but we established ahead of time that it was our permanent death card. By the end of that campaign, everyone had at least one death, and several players had 3-4. From this, you might guess that it was a 3.0 campaign that reached medium-high levels, with an utterly ruthless approach to save-or-die effects. (I don’t miss save-or-die effects even one little bit.) The high lethality and the certain knowledge that permanent death was on the table did have positive effects on the players’ emotional investment.

 

Suggestions

First off, I’d suggest having 1-2 significantly unfair fights early in the campaign. This is just about establishing tone and stakes. If a character stays dead from this, they’re not so far into the campaign that it’s impossible to get a new character involved. If they don’t stay dead, well, that’s cool too – you can show off what you’re doing with death and resurrection.

I like resurrection mechanics that have a failure chance, as I’ve said. I want to mask the precise failure chance from the players as much as possible, but I do want the back-end rules to acknowledge and reward characters showing investment and connection to one another. It’s emotional vulnerability at the gaming table, and GMs can always afford to pay in the coin of you get your friend back. If your players don’t have strong pre-existing emotional engagement, this doesn’t work nearly as well, so there’s a big Know Your Audience caveat here.

Know Your Audience applies to the whole thing, though. If your players aren’t up for a game experience that might involve significant grief and melancholic reminiscing over friends long gone, don’t force it. This just happens to be what I like. I love it when the melancholy of folk songs from your era of choice makes them a key part of a character’s mood and inner soundtrack. To put that another way, my characters in perm-death campaigns often care deeply about “The Parting Glass.”

A lot of you at this point are probably shaking your heads at what a maudlin player I can be, or at how it’s just a game and you don’t play games for this. I don’t know what to tell you, except that I was in the right places and right times of my life to have deeply affecting experiences with all of the games I’ve described. I don’t know that I could ever recapture that feeling, but I think this is more than nostalgia. I think that there are inescapable things about stakes in narrative, and tone in heroic adventure, that can’t really be solved without the deep possibility of character death and loss.

Whatever else I would say on that point goes so far down the path of arguing roleplaying for catharsis and experiencing powerful emotions within a safe space that it’s off-topic for this post.

I hope you’ll try playing and running games where death matters: not so common that life is cheap and your next character is just as disposable as the last, but where it is freighted with meaning. Where the in-character friendships feel real and meaningful even while your characters stand on the knife’s edge. I hope that if your character is unlucky and stays dead, you’ll be able to step back from your own sense of loss (a sign that the campaign meant something to you) and bring in a new character with all the energy you had when you first started playing. You’re rejoining a campaign where (one hopes) you can see that your successes and failures have had lasting consequence.

Halloween, leading into All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, is apparently the time for me to write elegies for absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists. So, you know, thanks for reading this.


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4 thoughts on “Death in Roleplaying Games

  • Samantha Moody

    I dont think it’s a bad thing to have higher stakes or even a melancholy tone about death. While I can sit here and nod along with you, i can’t say with absolution that I’d be a larp player that would embrace the outcome and use it for emotional fodder. I can embrace it from an outside standpoint, especially if it’s someone else because it gives me something to pour emotion into. As a player of the character that died, I don’t feel as though I’d be able to channel the emotion productively. It definitely prompts thought! I like systems that have it as a possibility, just maybe not so close to the surface/dangerously low rez possibility. For DnD I’m not as attached, but I think thtas just due to the lack of frequency in my schedule. It’s easier to do in a tabletop setting for me I think.

    Fabulous thought provoking article!

  • Ray

    I have been using a dice based complications system to tackle resurrection in my games similar to what Colin described over on Tribality a while back. The probability of complications arising scales with the number of times a character has been resurrected. Some of the more interesting complications that we’ve had arise were a paladin who’s resurrection drew the attention of another deity, who restored their life in exchange for a change of oaths, and a lich stealing a fragment of a PC’s soul in the underworld.
    On a resurrection note, how would you handle resurrections in the context of a race with rebirth lore – e.g. your recent work on alternative elves?

    • Brandes Stoddard Post author

      Those are great complications. =)

      I tend to regard revivify, raise dead, resurrection, and true resurrection as quite separate from rebirth or reincarnation, very much in keeping with how Gandalf seems more resurrected than reincarnated, but the elves go through cycles of rebirth. Approximately the same is true in Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels – anyone who isn’t killed in very specific ways can be revivified, but souls also undergo reincarnation through the Paths of the Dead.

      That is to say, I think there aren’t any mechanical questions to really answer around resurrection for elves, no matter what early editions of D&D may have done. (I’m pretty sure Raise Dead used to not work on elves?) As to elven culture, I think Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes does a much-better-than-average job of describing the elven approach to grief. On one hand, you’ve lost a friend who you might have known for centuries, or you’re losing the future centuries you might have had with them. On the other, you know they’ll be back, very possibly in your own lifetime, while you’re still young enough to have several more centuries of friendship with them. None of which is to say that you’d necessarily turn down a resurrection, unless you have a cultural belief that resurrection damages future incarnation outcomes.

      Finally, let me also say that your way of referencing both my other posts and Colin’s writing in making this comment is some of the most meaningful and deeply appreciated support that it is possible to offer.

      • Ray

        Of course! I greatly enjoy the content that you are both sharing!

        That’s an interesting point on rebirth being mechanically separable from resurrection. I’ve been looking at resurrection from a high level world building mechanical view and had not considered that individual cultures may have completely different perspectives on the subject. Elves potentially having a cultural stigma attached to resurrection and its influence on reincarnation cycles is particularly on theme. Thanks!