RPG Design – The Laws of Death

   Also known asDown Among the Dead Men, Part IV” – but, given that this section applies to any game, it goes under RPG Design.

   Character Deaths are always awkward in a role-playing game. A well-played death can be the culmination of a great story, and some role-players will gladly embrace a dramatic death scene given the chance – but quite a few others take it as a personal defeat, and get quite upset.

   And there are times when that’s not too unreasonable. Gratuitously killing off characters – particularly in dull, undramatic, or anticlimactic ways – really isn’t a lot of fun for anyone save the occasional “killer game master”, and those are more rumored than actually seen.

   Here’s a not-so-well-kept “secret”. Most game masters hate to kill off major characters. It holds up the game, disrupts plot lines, ruins relationships both between characters and with NPC’s (and if the game master has taken the time to develop an NPC, it often means that the NPC is integral to the current plot), discards plot hooks and relationships that the game master has probably spent a good deal of work on, and requires shoehorning a new character into the current situation. If the players are actually playing in character, it probably also means the loss of information that the game master was counting on the party having even if you (sensibly) presume that the characters shared a lot more in their months or years together than the players could handle in a few hours.

   Someone running a pure sandbox game may have no trouble with any of that, just as deep-immersion role-players may have their characters reject player-characters the characters don’t think are suitable to their group – but such purists are rare. Most players will go to absurd lengths to accommodate another players character, just as many game masters go to all kinds of trouble to keep the player characters alive.

   On the other hand, if you don’t let the characters take their lumps when they do something suicidal, or at least have something really nasty happen to them, there isn’t much chance of the players taking the game at all seriously. If there isn’t any real tension, there’s no satisfaction in winning – and if you’re not being challenged, why play?

   Ergo, here are The Laws of Onrushing Death – a.k.a “how to set things up”.

   1) Make sure that the players are aware that characters being killed or suffering some sort of long-term injury is a significant possibility in the game when you start it. Most players will be aware of that already, but there are often a few who think more in terms of computer games and always getting another shot with the same character.

   2) Make sure that the players, although not necessarily the player characters, are aware of it when they’re getting into a deadly situation. They may not be aware of their immediate danger, but they should at know that their characters are headed into a dangerous area, have offended a powerful opponent, or have been marked for death. A random mugger in a supposedly-safe area shouldn’t kill off anyone who doesn’t actively do something suicidal. Of course, if the characters do know that they’re heading into a potentially-lethal situation, haven’t taken sufficient precautions, and opt to do it anyway, character death or long-term injuries are a serious possibility. If it happens under those circumstances, the players should be prepared to deal with it.

   3) Ask about preferred death scenes from both the character’s prospective and the player’s. “How would your character like to die?” and “how would you like your characters death scene to play out?” are very different questions. While many characters would doubtless prefer “peacefully and comfortably, of extreme old age, in bed surrounded by children and grandchildren”, others may well opt for “in glorious battle” or some such – and player preferences are likely to lean towards the dramatic end regardless of what the character would prefer.

   4) Let them play out a few deaths. This is easiest in games like It Came from the Late Late Late Show (too bad it’s been pretty much unavailable for many years) where the characters are actors in movies – and can “die dramatically” all they want, since they’ll have a new role in the next movie anyway – but it can work in any game. For example…

   Ruthless enemies are moving against the realm. The characters will be working for their king and country, hunting them down and rooting them out. How can we make this setup dramatic?

   At the start of the first session, hand out simple character sheets for a royal guard or two to each player, tell them that they’ll be using these temporary characters for a short prequel, and get them each to give you a mannerism or odd detail or two to customize the guards they’ll be playing. Set up the situation and send in the assassins.

   It’s pretty well guaranteed that some of the guards will die, but they might be able to save good king Alfredo, or maybe even get him out unwounded, and any who do die should accomplish something fairly important in the process – providing a warning, delaying the attack, letting the younger royal children get out safely, or whatever. Perhaps a surviving guard will get adopted as a backup player character, or become a reoccurring NPC. After all, he or she will already have a bit of background, some known deeds, and a connection to the players.

   Now switch to the actual player characters being called to the service of the crown. If the players managed to keep King Alfredo alive during the prequel, he’ll do it. If not, Prince Marinara will take over. Either way, you’ve established that characters can die, that (at least in a RPG) dying well can be as rewarding as living, AND you’ve got the players personally involved in the setup.

   5) Check the character backgrounds. Some characters have obvious successors in mind already – a sibling or child will inherit the quest or some such – while others are designed with a death scene in mind from the very beginning. For example, the pre-game notes for Lian Ko (elsewhere on the site) includes this bit:

   Lian showed his sorcerous talents early; weaving simple charms to enhance his knowledge, senses, and speed. Naturally enough, he was apprenticed out as soon as he possibly could be; an untrained sorcerer was a danger to himself and to everyone else around him. The local priests provided intensive religious education as well; youthful sorcerers could fall to the lure of black magic all too easily.

   Things got a lot more serious a few years later. Lian was out camping with a few friends when one of them unwisely traced the runes on an ancient pillar in the woods. There wasn’t much power left in the old spells, but it had still been containing a very minor demon. Unleashed it would have been more than a match for a few village youngsters, but the White Light responded to Lian’s desperate call.

   The spell backlash left Lian hanging on the edge of consciousness – but the light sustained him even as it burned the demon to harmless ash.

   He was adrift within that light for a long time.

   When he awoke under the care of the priests back at the village he woke knowing that his talents had been granted to him for the service and protection of others.

   Now there’s a character who started off his career by throwing himself on a grenade to protect his friends. The character, of course, wished to survive to perform more good deeds – but he would not retreat if it meant abandoning innocents or his duty. Liam had no fear of dying in the service of his god… As a player, it was really quite disappointing when the game master insisted on pulling a “Gandalf the White” routine and sending him back after Liam sacrificed himself to buy time for his companions to save the world from a demonic invasion. You couldn’t ask for a better martyrs death than that, and it would have been a great end to his personal story. The campaign wasn’t over – but his part in it was, or at least should have been, and new characters aren’t that hard to make. When a character has achieved his or her goals, and everything from this point on will be downhill, he or she is ready to go – whether it’s into death or retirement. Don’t fight it.

   Now that you’re prepared to deal with situations that might kill a character, how are you going to handle it when it actually comes up? Never fear! There are some laws for that as well – The Laws of Passing:

   1) Make it memorable and let hit have an impact. If it’s practical, you can make it a heroic and deciding moment. Even if you can’t manage that, it can be memorably ironic – or you can throw in some dramatic description at a bare minimum. Get the characters final words, or thoughts, or reaction. There’s a big difference between the player announcing “Damn, -23 wounds, that puts me past the overdamage limit; I guess I’m dead” and “I sag to one knee, leaning on my sword, and momentarily stanching the flow of blood with my other hand! `Onward’s men! Keep pressing the attack! For the King!’ – and then I fall across the cooling bodies of my last three slain foes!”.

   2) Allow rescue and revival attempts, even if it stretches the mechanics of the initiative system or the rules about death a bit. Most games have a fairly arbitrary set of rules for that sort of thing anyway – and in quite a few you can be doing just fine until you take a final attack, whereupon you instantly die. Life and Death are rarely that clean-cut unless you’ve been hit with a nuclear weapon or a disintegration beam or some other overwhelming attack. Go ahead, let the party medic try to pull the character back from the brink. If they can, can they get the victim to a better healer or to a hospital in time? What will the after-effects of such a close call be? Near-death adds tension. Death pretty much eliminates it. Give the players a minute or two to try and find a way to survive – and let them doublecheck their numbers. It’s always irritating to have someone realize that “wait! I had a bonus that would or could have saved Riijn!!” two hours after the fact.

   3) Allow final actions. Player characters – at least after they’ve been in play long enough to worry about – tend to be high-powered beings of extraordinary potential. The dying spell, the expiring curse or blessing, and the final strike are all classic fantastic elements. Even in more realistic worlds, clinging to life long enough to hit the dead-man switch, dragging yourself forward to cover the grenade, and similar stunts are more-or-less reasonable.

   If the player opts for this sort of thing, rather than just taking a minor action or saying a few words before losing consciousness, it generally pre-empts the second law; the character has expended his or her final energies. Let slain characters – and powerful enemies – expend their dying strength on aiding their allies or cursing their enemies. Blessings are harder than curses – it’s easer to mess things up than to improve them – so they tend to be shorter term than curses. Since there are always more enemies, this will tend to hurt the player-characters more than it helps them, but being able to have your death help save your friends automatically adds a satisfying element of heroism to dying. A character death is always a setback, let it be a small step forward as well.

   4) In many, if not most, game settings Death is not the end – and it shouldn’t be treated that way. Even if it’s nothing but a hallucination according to the rules, a tag scene is in order. A welcome into the afterlife, a look back at the world that is being left behind – and a glimpse of the future.

   Will you be meeting your deity? Will there be a test? Will you have to once more fight all of your fallen foes or defend the Barque of Ra? If you’re brought back somehow, what will you remember? Will it include any hints? Can you appear in a vision to your relatives or – perhaps – choose a successor to pass on some portion of your strength and knowledge to? Can you act as an ancestor spirit and bestow some blessings? Do you get to leave behind a relic on the way out? Do you have to justify your actions and decisions? Will you have some great insight or clairvoyant moment on the way out that you can pass on to help your companions? Can you observe from the spirit realm and appear in dreams to advise those left behind? Will the character be rising as a vengeful revenant? Be recruited by demons or be revived by a necromancer? If the character does come back, how will he or she be changed by this incredible experience?

   Spend a few minutes on that sort of thing. Go ahead; let the old character continue to made small contributions to the game.

   5) Note the aftermath. The other characters should have some fairly strong reactions to the death of a comrade – and hopefully it will be something other than “relief”. Is there going to be a funeral or a will? Who is going to notify the relatives, and how will they react? What will the characters arch-enemies and nemesis do? What will the other characters say in memoriam? Will a statue be erected in the village that the character saved? A character’s death affects everyone that he or she associated with. Note how the character was important to the world and sum up his or her career.

   Of course, now that a character’s been killed off, it’s time for a replacement character. That can also be complicated – so here are some laws for that as well. In this case, we have The Rules of Return:

   1) You can make being resurrected easy – but once you’ve given death a revolving door, you might as well not bother with injuries or death at all. Besides, unless you want to warp every culture and society in your game world beyond all recognition, or don’t care if your world makes any sense, returning from the dead needs to remain a rare and difficult thing, and you may want to give it some form of permanent price. For that matter, give near-death experiences some sort of permanent price.

   2) Most characters should have reputations, relatives, friends, and a web of contacts and connections. For lower-powered characters, all of them are potential replacements – with pre-existing links with the party, reasons to join the group, and some sort of claim on the previous character’s position.

   3) In the case of characters who had reached very high power levels or attained influential positions, having the player bring in a new starting (or simply plausibly experienced) character may leave them with little to do. You can compensate for a few sessions by giving the new character useful information and contacts, and by putting in situations tailored to their talents – but unless the rules already allow them to catch up quickly (like the semi-geometric experience point tables in first edition AD&D, which effectively let power rub off from higher level characters) you’ll need to power them up a bit. Having the deceased character pass on some power to his or her chosen successor, letting him or her invest it in a relic which will choose it’s own master, taking a break to allow the older characters to provide the new character with special training, or letting the new character go on some minor sub-adventures in between the regular sessions, will cover this nicely. It also has the happy benefit of fitting the new character into the campaign world and of letting the player develop the character more naturally, without missing out on all of his or her development. I’ve usually found this to be the best solution – but I tend towards very long campaigns. Taking four sessions to catch up out of two hundred and fifty is nothing. Taking four sessions to catch up out of twenty-two is considerably more awkward.

   4) You can simply let the player take over an existing NPC of similar, or moderately lesser, power – and possibly give said NPC a bit of an upgrade. This works very well as a stopgap, but it usually doesn’t work for very long. Most role-playing gamers want to use their own ideas, not one of yours, and most major NPC’s have roles to play in the campaign already. It works better when the player already has secondary characters that they’ve had a hand in creating – such as old-school style “Henchmen” and “Apprentices”, offspring, relatives they’ve detailed and brought into play, and secondary or semi-retired characters. Encourage your players to create secondary characters and NPC’s – and, once they do, make sure that those characters get involved in the action every so often. You get extra depth for your world, the players get a useful resource, and the game gets a fallback position in the case of untimely character death or long-term incapacitation.

   5) If you simply let a player bring in a new high-powered character, be prepared. You’re going to have to deal with issues like “where was this guy last week when we really needed help?”, “why haven’t we ever heard of this mighty warrior before?”, and “but what has he been doing to become so powerful? Doesn’t he have any high-powered friends?”. If the group is made up of dimension-hopping eccentrics such questions may not be a problem – but in tighter settings it usually is. In this case time, distance, and isolation are your friends. A character who has just emerged from many years of intensive training in an isolated monastery in the mountains, an emissary or traveler from a distant land, and a prisoner rescued after decades of entrapment, can all be dropped into the game with very little disruption.

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One Response

  1. There was recently a major argument in one of our games concerning this very subject. It wasn’t resolved easily. Be warned: this kind fo thing can really hurt your game if left untreated.

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