Dying To Tell The Story - Enjoying Character Death in RPG's
Any roleplayer will tell you that character development is at the core of most roleplaying games. However, not many roleplaying systems cater for the final development of any character: their death. So I am going to put this question out there: should the roleplaying of character death be an integral part of the roleplay experience, or is the death of a character just bad luck?
Any roleplayer will tell you that character development is at the core of most roleplaying games. However, not many roleplaying systems cater for the final development of any character: their death. So I am going to put this question out there: should the roleplaying of character death be an integral part of the roleplay experience, or is the death of a character just bad luck (and a pain in the ass)?
This is a difficult and (I imagine for many) an unusual topic. Probably the majority of roleplayers become in some way attached to their characters. I have seen this lead players to go to extreme lengths to prevent their favourite characters from dying; rules lawyering, turning 'munchkin' or begging & bargaining with the GM.
Alternatively I have read many systems with built in methods to help avoid/fix character death (reincarnation, wish spells, fate points, Torpor, or simply ruling it impossible altogether) -- this goes on top of the GM's ability to 'fudge' things for gameplay's sake.
So looking at the source material out there, I imagine my views are in a pretty small minority when it comes to player death. "And that view is what?" you ask.
I actually like my characters dying.
Now before I go on I would like to point out the following:
- I am not a devil's advocate, playing evil annoying characters to incur the wrath of GM's and other players.
- I don't always/often play suicidal berserkers or manic-depressives.
- I do not play for a 'munchkinesque' thrill, trying to discover what way the GM will come up with for killing off my latest monstrosity.
Still, I am unlikely to go through extended campaigns with just one character, making it from the most basic pleb to the heady heights of the highest levels, regardless of whether I have the luck of the gods or the worlds most easy going GM trying to ensure my characters safety.
This is because while some people get upset, put off or annoyed when their creation bites the big one, I find myself planning ahead for the moment with a sense of excitement. I feel a strong urge to see my characters' stories encapsulated, with a beginning, middle, and inevitably an end. And I have this feeling from the moment I start working on the character.
If I am making a thief, I'll think about whether his character deserves to end up hanging from the gallows sold out by a local snitch. If so I'll play him in such a way that it's likely to happen, rather than dropping out of character to save my characters neck every time something really dangerous comes up.
If he were more of a buccaneer, perhaps instead he would end up simply outnumbered ten to one by the city guard and go down fighting, even though I know statistically it is impossible for him to escape.
Then there is the question of whether my Barbarian falls dead in an over indulgent orgy of alcohol, or if he is more likely to take the risk of being slashed apart by facing off against his foul nemesis.
Will my Mage be torn asunder by raw magical power, or will she sacrifice herself and transcend mortality ala Obi Wan Kenobi?
I find these questions vital to the narrative control I have over my character, my ability to create an interesting way for them to play a part in whatever story arc the GM has created and yet to unfold.
Now, when creating a character for a fictional story such questions cause no problems. The writer has total narrative control and can be fully aware of all the implications.
But this mentality in a gaming group is not very well understood or catered for. This unfortunately may lead to all sorts of problems with other players. They might feel that I am not taking the game seriously enough, that I am moving from one character to the next seemingly at a whim. Here I would argue that is not the case -- character death can be an intrinsic part of character design.
Other gaming circles might be of the mind that I am letting down the group by not pulling together and ensuring that the difficulties are faced as a cohesive whole... that I am some sort of loner.
Again, I don't think this is true. Rather I would simply have some say in when my character dies, instead of attempting to hide from it at all costs only to eventually be cut down by some bad roll of the dice in a totally forgettable situation. I like to leap at the chance for a cinematic and glorious defeat when I spot one.
I also like to extend this perhaps unusual idea and line of questioning further, into areas where as of yet permanent character death hasn't seen much, if any, use at all. MMORPGs to me are a point of concern. These games often require hours and hours of dedicated game time to come anywhere near their supposed potential. Here, the only real skill involved is persistence. Doesn't this sound far too much like work for something that is meant to be entertainment? Yet so many people play them. The reason, I am told, is that the games are addictive.
I for one would first have to ask if the gaming is fun, rather than simply addictive. In my opinion these are very different things. If the gaming itself was fun, why would I be disappointed when my character dies? Why would I feel like my time has gone to 'waste'? Yet these are the cries I hear people make when they hear of the possibility of their character facing permanent death in both pen and paper roleplaying and the MMORPG format.
This attitude towards immortality, the 'save, reload' ability, with only a penalty or setback thrown in for you troubles, is the cause of one of the major problems I find with the current wave of online gaming. In an attempt to emulate roleplaying the genre has become all about achievement and prestige and perseverance. Remarkably fun, challenge and even entertainment have been thrown out the window for these lofty ideals of accumulation which simply appeal to some of the worst aspects of human nature: greed, pride, and jealously. Unsurprisingly, as anyone in marketing would tell you, this is working. But it isn't providing us with good games.
So, how do we change things?
I will start by asking you to view characters' deaths as opportunities to create new characters while creating a fitting end to old characters. To assist with this, game designers could put effort into creating systems where character death is, at least in some way, a rewarding experience for the player. Offering a player who plays a good death scene with bonuses to ensure his or her next character is up to speed with the rest of the party could prevent stagnation in characters and the extreme measures people go to prevent their character deaths. You could also incorporate factors that would allow some aspects of previous characters to be passed onto the new ones, perhaps by hereditary advantages or characters leaving particular items as heirlooms to their new character. Obviously, a character would not be rewarded if they rushed out and got themselves killed just for the sake of a quick bonus, as this does nothing for the drama of the game.
After all, hasn't the death scene been a stable of the cinema and theatre forever?
Isn't it time we stopped looking at character death as something that should be avoided by the characters and some sort of stick with which the GM can threaten players into keeping up with their story line?
Or have I just fallen out of the crazy tree and landed on my head?