Saturday, January 9, 2010

Musings on character death, et al.

The subject of character death seems to have reared its unlovely head once more in our group's collective gaming lives. For me, this was precipitated by two recent events.

The first was my reading of the collective responses sent in by my players to my GM game survey form I circulated earlier in the week through my gaming egroups. I'll be devoting the responses of my players and their expected effects on my gaming henceforth in a later post. Suffice it to say for now that character death appears to be a geniune issue with not a few of my current players.

The second was the unexpected and brutal deaths of mutants Clem and Clyde during our last Friday night Mutant Future game. A good thing I can say about my current players is their dedication to really building up a well-thought of and played character. Couple this with the emotional investment of making Clem and Clyde survive through six gaming sessions (quite a record for a harassed referee like me to maintain a game this long), I guess the loss of the mutants understandably felt like a real loss for Henry.

For a wee part of the game last Friday, my friend sat there staring at the green plastic mini representing his recently-deceased mutant muttering in tagalog, the equivalent of "Ce'st la vie" over and and over again. Eventually, he picked himself up, dusted himself off, and got back into the thick of it, as every good player does.

These things may strike some gamers as strange or even absurd, but as my gaming group's GM, I can't be blind to them.

For the longest time, character death (if it ever came at all) was few and far between in my gaming group. Our default game system of choice was Gurps and stories were rather story- and plot-driven. Although I seem to have acquired a reputation for running hard-edged, gritty and combat-bloody games, looking back, there were really few character deaths in my games.

Late in 2008, I invested in the boxed set of the Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition rules and started running a campaign for my gaming group. I felt like a fish out of water in the start as everyone else had been playing 4e already and I was astounded to see just how many new rules and concepts there were. And the powers - man, it was like law school all over again: daily powers, utility powers, encounter powers, at-will powers - all on top of skills and feats. Still, it was fun in the beginning.

Then, the tedium kicked in. It seemed a new book arrived every x number of weeks with even more new rules and new races and new crunchy magic items, and so on, ad nauseam. And my gaming group really got off on trying out the newest, crunchiest stuff that came out.

In a way, I got too caught up in trying to run a 'fun game' the way I thought my players (and the unseen game writers) thought I ought to be running the game, not how I thought the game ought to be.

In 2009, I started reading up on various old-school gaming blogs starting out with Grognardia. I started lurking in the old-school gaming forums that came up beginning with the one of Goblinoid Games. All this opened up a whole new world for me, so to speak. I guess you can say I got caught up in the Old-School Gaming Rennaisance movement that is still happening to this day. The old-school explosion really resonated inside my gaming consciousness like nothing else did for a very long time.

Something clicked inside my brain. At this time I was approaching 4e burn-out and I could feel it already. It is ironic that looking back now, my first 4e adventuring party suffered a TPK from me at about this time. Following this, I did hear some grumbles and dark mutterings on the side about the dungeon master applying too many of those "weird old-school gaming ideas" to the 4e game. Maybe they were right. It dawned on me that I had forgotten a very basic core rule that I always held true to my gaming.

I am the game master. I master the game. The rules don't master me. I adjudicate the situation conistently and fairly. If push comes to shove, in a conflict between the rules as written and the game master's decision, the latter should prevail. I know lots of players won't see things this way, but that's how I see things to be. Of course, this presupposes that the game master should be fair and consistent in his rulings, else tyrrany and absurdity arises thereafter.

On the other hand, character death is more sticky. Player emotions can be involved- particularly in view of the emotional investment made by a player for a well-played character. Significantly, the advise given by James Edward Raggi on Adventure Writing appearing in his Lamentations of the Flame Princess provides a very do-able answer in addressing such a concern:

"The most important thing to remember when constructing an adventure is to not assume that the PCs will succeed at any point during the adventure.

As a referee, your job is to be completely impartial during game play. You have absolute power at the game table and can bequeath success or mandate failure at any time. Doing either of those things ruins the game, as both give no incentive to play well.

Do not fudge the dice. Ever. Luck is a part of the game, and the dice are there for a reason. Resist the temptation of sparing characters that fail or even die due to “bad luck” or a “stupid die roll.”

Would it be acceptable to tell a player that just rolled a stunning success that you’ve decided, just because it’s more fun, that the die roll doesn’t count and he instead failed? I don’t think so. So why would ignoring the dice in the players’ favor be acceptable?

Good game play will tip the scales of fortune and those that rely on pure luck deserve what they get – either way. At the same time, if an incredibly lucky roll derails the entire adventure and gives the players a quick victory, it should stand. It needs to work both ways. When the dice go badly for the players, they should be thinking of how to not let a roll of the die be the sole determiner of their fates. And when the dice go a little too well for the players, the referee should note what he needs to do to prevent a single die roll from determining the course of an entire adventure.

Traditional games are all about the players (and referee) learning to play better over time. The characters’ experience gains are secondary. Demand and reward player excellence and the game will be more challenging in the long run."

In turn, I arrived at the realization that if you really consider your character very valuable and worthy of the emotional investment you placed upon him, then it is your duty to play excellently, whereby ensuring that a single die roll does not result in the death of the character; that the fate of your character does not purely rely upon the scales of fortune or the outcome of a single die roll.

Hindsight is always 20/20 and I would not go so far as to venture with certainty that Clem and Clyde could have easily survived the encounter against the mutant scorpions if everyone started blasting away with their newly-acquired firepower instead of saving their ammo until the last minute. What I can safely say is that the death of Clem and Clyde was an example of a character's fate being determined by a single (saving) throw of the dice. Maybe people could have hedged their survival chances by blasting away for a mad minute at the first opportunity. Or maybe they could have ran away instead. Perhaps this is when playing excellently really comes to the fore.

Finally, there comes a time when even despite one's best efforts, something really happens and throws the whole thing out of whack. Characters will die as RPGs in general (at least as far as I'm concerned) largely involve killing and death. If that happens, then reflect on how the character lived. There is a story out there and death is not the end of anything, by no means! Great times are remembered and the memory of an excellently played character is the best way to ensure gaming immortality.

As I write this I recall a few players I had in my previous Fading Suns gaming group. One of them was a real thespian - the sort that cries in-game while role playing the angst of her Vampire character (yes, they were really into that style of gaming). One valentine's day in 1999, I was pleasantly surprised to receive flowers (of all things)from this player before running a game. A really nasty part of me asked myself if these were burnt offerings made to appease the GM (we were running through a dungeon-type game against some Zerg-like baddies called the Symbiots). Halfway through the game, it seemed like her character would die after getting badly mauled by a Symbiot critter. Some recalculations confirmed this was not the case so she lived.

In the meantime, she was beside herself anguish and was on the edge of what seemed like mild hysteria at the thought of a beloved character dying. She even threatened to take back the flowers.

I really didn't give a fig about the flowers but I was mildly put off, to say the least, by her reaction. If that happened to me today, knowing what I know now, I'd most likely just laugh in everyone's collective face and get back to the game.


  1. This is a good post. I agree with much of what is said here, though the ability of the player and their emotional maturity must factor into things as well.

    A player may be a good player and able to keep his favorite character alive, however, there may be players who are not as able to play but who may still become meotionally invested. For these players there is, I think a bit of a dramatic license that cane be taken with the game play until they have matured enough.

    Those players that cannot or do not mature enough might want to think about another hobby. If you want them in your game for social reasons or whatever, then players and GMs have to consign themselves to continuing this license for the duration of the game.

    I would also say that allowing for some dramatic license, even with experienced players may work for "the greater good" in many cases and staving off player death for a bit to let the story flow for a bit is acceptible in my experience.

    I remember killing my little brother's character in front of his friends in an adventure I ran during a birthday party of his. I was scolded by mom so much for that and in retrospect it really may not have been the best time to kill his character.

  2. You know, that's true Eli. The face-to-face role playing aspect of our game still has a social aspect we can never deny. Essentially, it boils down to continuous communication between the players and GM, as well as healthy amount of respect, empathy and sensitivity in the interest of what you aptly call "the greater good".

  3. Nice post. Sounds like you and I are on the same page regarding 4E, I sold all of my 4E books and haven't regretted it.
    One thing I have noticed about Old School games is the lethality factor seems to be higher than in more "modern" games. Even my Castles & Crusades Campaign was alot more lethal than my previous 3.0-3.5 Campaigns combined.
    Have you thought about using the Order of the d30 option? If the players save their one d30 roll per sessio for those save or die rolls it might help them feel like they have a 'bit' more control and not so totally at the whim of the dice, course you get one roll per game also.

  4. Great Post! I personally hate having to learn excess data I can't use in other things, cause I'm already cluttered enough as it is.

    I think the level of responsibility affects the level of efficiency and practicality in a GM's approach.

    "whereby ensuring that a single die roll does not result in the death of the character"

    I really agree to this. In fact, listening to fellow (well meaning) Players and their admonishments is how you prevent from getting into this point in the FIRST PLACE.

    Although knowing the player, he likes testing limits and has a pretty used to getting over character death.

  5. Man, I feel your pain. I recently joined a gaming group and later GMed for the first time in over 20+ yrs... I never realised how much RPGs have changed for the worse.

    Most of the players were 3.5 fans and when one of them died (twice) there was the biggest, lamest controversy ever... "Don't you know PCs aren't supposed to die??" "This game sucks: it's so primitive - It needs more rules" etc.

    Suffice it to say I quit the group.
    (I despair of ever finding a new one)

    It really made me appreciate the maturity and skill of my friends in primary school!

    These new guys wanted everything on a platter and a constant stream of NPCs whose "alignment" and stats were easily identifiable because actually role-playing, taking time to explore and form a strategy would have been too much work and/or risky.

    As you say, and as the old school rules would take pains to make clear: it doesn't matter who lives or dies (there are no winners or losers) but how you play the game that makes it so much fun.

    I've played enough RPGs to understand almost instinctively that more rules means a more boring game: more looking up rules in-game, more sad lawyering and slower play. Combat that takes 30 mins for just one or two rounds is not my idea of fun! It's not rocket surgery.

    Jame Raggi makes some great points, esp. about never fudging the dice ever.

    I'm not trying to be snarky but I really worry about players who have to great an attachment to their characters. It's not as though you've been dumped by your girlfriend, or lost your job or are totally broke. Losing a PC should not be a crisis.

  6. @Bill: now that you mentioned it, I'm seriously thinking of selling off my 4e books (I can sure use the extra cash these days!). And thanks so much for the great advise: your suggestion on the Order of the d30 has a lot of merit in it! I'm sure the guys will jump at the chance of weaving it into the game.

  7. @Nikolas: yup, that's true. Our common player-friend is a pretty dynamic guy. His efforts at simultaneously role-playing two personalities at the same time is just awesome to behold! Hope you are well and doing fine in your classes. Looking forward to gaming with you soon dude!

  8. @Cris: thanks for the input, man. Reading about your experiences also gives me a feeling of deja vu. I have to struggle to wipe that big fat sarcastic smile of my face when I hear the standard "Do you know PCs aren't supposed to die?" question. Could this also be attributed to a generation gap between me and many players today (ouch! times like these, I'm really feeling my age...) And yes, letting go really helps - the loss of a PC really shouldn't be an earth-shaking crisis.

    I really hope you find a good new gaming group. I have a player who immigrated to Aussie (in fact two of them!) and we still dream of getting together and rolling the dice whenever they get the chance to visit here. If you do find yourself in Manila, you're always welcome to game with us!

  9. @Chris: I am so sorry for mis-spelling your name- this was not intentional! My apologies - being sleep deprived makes me see double.

  10. "if everyone started blasting away with their newly-acquired firepower instead of saving their ammo until the last minute."

    We have a saying in our group, picked up during bitter experiences, "Dead guys can't drink healing potions."

  11. Excellent quote Blair. It brought a smile to my lips here in the office this morning. Just what I needed to get me through the day!