In our fourth episode, we get a little heavier and discuss the prospect of character death in RPGs.
Some games aren’t meant to be played as long-term campaigns. In these games, character creation is usually quick and dirty, sessions and the game mechanics strongly support a rapid means of removing characters from the game. Dread and Fiasco are examples of this, as are, to an extent, Microscope and Don’t Rest Your Head. With the expectation that the game will only last a session or so, losing your character, at worst, means sitting out the remainder of the night’s session. In more involved games, losing a character means losing a significant investment.
In crunchier, rules-heavy games, it may mean giving up on a specific character build you were working towards. In D20 games such as Pathfinder RPG and Dungeons and Dragons, the player may have put significant planning into a build that works from 1st to 20th level, planning out what feats to take, skills to level up and prestige classes to join. In GURPS, a great deal of math and work may have gone into making the character in the first place. In crunch-heavy games, losing a character means planning all over how to build the character.
In fluffier, plot-heavy games, there may be significant emotional and story investment in the character. World / Chronicles of Darkness characters often have significant histories, storylines, connections to NPCs and aspirations that maybe be lost or truncated if the character was removed from the game. In games like Song of Ice and Fire or FATE-based roleplaying games, losing your character (whether by death or some other factor) removes your tie to the other characters and setting.
Some groups use backup characters in games where death is more likely. This can be a satisfactory solution, and some game systems even support this directly. World / Chronicles of Darkness has suggested that a character’s Retainer or Mentor (be they mundane or supernatural) could provide a source for backup characters. The Leadership Feat in D&D provides a second character to the player, albeit one that is somewhat lower level than the original character, which could be used in a pinch. Other games may not have structured in-game rules for backup characters, but such characters could still be included as NPCs with as much or as little direct involvement on the game.
In some games, it may be suitable to institute a rule whereby characters are not killed “for-real” unless dramatically appropriate. Characters might be incapacitated or defeated, and (if the setting permits it) may die with the guarantee that they will return to life, but do not die permanently. For many groups the loss of character death may result in reduced interest in the game – after all, character death is a powerful motivator! For some groups, however, it frees the players to engage in riskier and, potentially, more interesting gameplay. Knowing that a simple misstep or failure won’t result in the loss of their character can leave them feeling liberated and able to play richer stories secure in the knowledge that at the end of combat, their characters will continue to play. A compromise – where the group loses if every character is defeated – is possible, and can be the de facto play style in more gamist RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, where death is often little more than a minor setback.
Every game has default expectations for how deadly they will be. In games like Pathfinder RPG, a well-planned and cautious party can generally be expected to survive if their players are clever and competent, regardless of how strictly the rules are adhered to. In D&D 4th Edition, this is doubly true (although Fourthcore variants worked to counter that expectations). Vintage style RPGs tend to hearken back to the days when death in RPGs was arbitrary and sudden, while narrative RPGs are typically more survivable (though there are some notable deviations from this principle). Remember that unless you discuss the tone of your game with your players, they are going to come to the table with certain expectations for how “difficult” the game will be, survival-wise.
When running a game, it’s wise to set realistic expectations on how likely character death is. Talk to your players regarding whether they should avoid becoming attached to or working too hard on their characters. Let them know if you plan to run a game that is significantly more or less lethal than the game’s rulebook implies. Knowing what to expect from your game will, in nearly all cases, make the experience better for everyone involved.