October 2, 2012

The Myth of Character Death

One of the rallying cries of the OSR, and old-time gamers in general, is the subject of lethality in a game. They state that the fear of death, and the actual killing of characters, adds a layer to an rpg game that more modern games have lost sight of. I'm not so sure that adding lethality really creates what they are looking for; I am starting to think that Lethality and Character Death are a myth.

When Lethality and the fear of Character Death is working correctly, a player makes decisions for their characters based on this knowledge or fear. They are more careful with their characters; they "prepare" better. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes, the player has his character act "irrationally" or in role-playing terms "heroically". And this is because Lethality is a myth.

When a character dies, the player does not have to stop playing in that campaign. Instead they simply roll up  a new character. Sometimes, the DM will even go out of their way to provide that new character with ties to the dead character or at the very least with the other members of the adventuring party; all done in the name of easier integration into the campaign. The player is not even constrained in what type of character their new one will be; if they want, they can go ahead and create another dwarven thief. There is no real penalty for having a character die.

Even if a "hardcore" DM forces a new character to begin at starting level, without any of the magic items or other materials of an advanced character, the new character will be coddled by the higher level characters. The DM will avoid targeting the new character with attacks that can one-shot the new character while only lightly injuring one of the advanced characters. Play will be altered until such a time as the new character "catches" up to the rest of the party.

I had one campaign wherein the party was surrounded and outnumbered three-to-one. The enemy had weapons that could kill with one shot as the party already knew as they had seen the enemy use these weapons before. And yet when the party was asked to surrender, one of them went all "heroic" and tried to fight his way out...with the expected result of character death. If there was a real fear of character death, the "smart" thing would have been to surrender and work on an escape later. But there was no real fear of character death because the player knew he could simply roll up another character and continue on with the campaign.

I am currently working on a game setting that is a closed world. It is a lost worlds series of adventure wherein the only characters are the initial ones. Transition to and from this world is virtually non-existent. As I am working on the design I had to ask myself, what happens when a character dies? The normal response is to simply bring in another character. But then I also realized that be allowing this, it completely undermines the core concept of being lost and alone in a strange world with no one to rely on except themselves. If a character does something "stupid", like charge a dinosaur with a spear, then that character should die. But by allowing the player to simply roll up a new character it diminishes the fact the player made a "foolish" character decision with their last character.

Part of me wants to not allow the player to roll up a new character. If a character dies, then the player must suffer the consequences of his poor judgement and must sit out the rest of the campaign. Now that would put a real edge on playing their characters. If that was the rule, players would play things much more carefully; every decision would be weighed and be of the utmost importance; game play would reach a new height of intensity. But, of course, that is not a real option. My group plays together because we like hanging out together and the rules we pick to play with facilitate this.

However, players are able to completely ignore the concept of lethality and character death because they are allowed roll up another character to take the place of the previous character. Players are allowed to make "foolish" decisions and ignore the "reality" of a situation because they are allowed roll up another character and continue on as before. Lethality and the Fear of Character Death are a myth.


Philo Pharynx said...

Hmmm... This is an interesting idea, but where are you going with this? Is the player forever banned from your table? Do they get to comeback in four weeks?

Or is it based on the "foolishness" of the decision. i.e. Bob just rolled poorly and his foe rolled well. So he gets to come back next week. Ralph leapt on a dragon's back and tried to strangle it with his spiked chain so it would focus on him and his companions could come back. So he has to sit out for three months.

What's funny is that I fear death more in systems where it's rarer. In games with high lethality I tend to regard characters like M&M's. You appreciate them, but you don't get attached to them.

In a game with rarer death I get attached to my character. They have a backstory, a family, friends and lots of other roleplaying reasons to live. I know why they are risking their lives adventuring. When something threatens their lives I feel it as a player. My blood is racing and I'm focused on the game and everything I'm doing. Losing the character hurts more than Joe-R-FTR-23.

I think you need to have lethal threats. But death doesn't have to be omnipresent.

Heck in some of the games I've played, every death is foolish because no sane person would leave the farm.

Victor Von Dave said...

I agree, I sometimes think the OSR is a bit too preoccupied with the lethality of games as some kind of badge of honour or mark of authenticity. But it's sort of an empty concept for the OSR to hang its hat on, because as you point out, the nature of the game is that death is always only going to be an obstacle, not the end of the world. We all accept the basic conceit of tabletop games - that it's a game between friends and everyone gathered around the table is going to be allowed to play no matter how stupid an in-game decision they make or how bad their luck is.

Anonymous said...

why coddle the new level-1 character ?
A level-1 charcater in in level-X campaign is like a naked man swimming with piranhas - it's expected to b tough on him/her.
Of course the other charcters will protect him/her ( I hope XD ) and hand him/her magic gear and all ( this was Bill's dragonslaying sword, who died heroically. I'm sure he'd have wanted you to have it and act less stupidly than he did. ) still that charcater will either be killed again ( and the next… and the next… ) or have a pretty tough time getting to be less underpowered. If you want to 'sanction' death that's enough.

Callin said...

@Anon That was my point on coddling. The other players hand the new lvl 1 magic items far above his level even though the new character did absolutely nothing to help get it. The character is being coddled by the rest of the party. He is being brought up to the party's level even though "he is not being coddled and has to start at level 1".

I say he is being coddled and every group does it because 1)they want their friend to have fun, 2)they don't want him to drag down the rest of the party.

In the end, there is no real "penalty" for character death.