This post is a day late and I’m sorry. My goal is to have something new every Thursday, but I spent the day not dealing very well with the illness and death of a coworker, mentor and friend. I put a good bit of words on paper, and they will see the light of day in later posts, but I think I need to address the elephant in my personal room, and as this is a blog about gaming, how to find ways to deal with death in roleplaying games. Loss and grief are powerful emotions, and can produce powerful, memorable scenes in games. And talking about those emotions can sometimes soften the real blows life occasionally throws at us.
Losing a character sucks. We invest ourselves in these people, learning about them over time, getting to know them better with each encounter. Familiarity breeds affection, and the more time we spend with them, the more keenly their loss is felt. Movies do this all the time, as does television. (Game of Thrones, I’m looking at you.) Maybe if a character dies at first level we just shrug and reach for a blank character sheet, but more frequently we’re already caught up in their potential and have learned enough about them in the process of making them to feel their loss. Traveler got a reputation, because it was possible for a character to die before character creation was finished. The life path system told you a story about the character while they were being created: A few years in the Navy, then as a Scout, and each time there was a gamble. Do I go for one more term, risk losing this person, in order to get them more resources to allocate? Even in the process of making a character we already forge a connection to them. Add weeks, months, years of playing them, and losing them is keenly felt.
Death should be meaningful, it should serve a purpose in the story of your game. Even for NPCs: the deaths of nameless villagers serve to highly the evil that threatens the village. When the barmaid the party befriended last session is taken and killed she’s now a victim, and this rampage must be stopped! For a PC, death can be the result of a noble sacrifice, throwing herself into the zombie horde to make sure the rest of the party has a chance to escape. If your player gives you this type of sacrifice play, honor the hell out of it, and make sure their sacrifice buys something serious—not a five minute respite, no. The rest of the party is safe. You made sure of that. This is a good time to bend the rules a little, too. “You know what? Sure. You would have had time to pass the MacGuffin off.” Dying last words, or a sacrificial blow to mortally wound a foe, voluntarily giving up a character is worth a lot.
Many games take the sting out of death with powerful magic, or science (or both). Resurrection spells (or cloning vats, or resleeving the brainscan from your cortical stack) aren’t easy to come by, nor should they be. Death should sting. Mortal wounds are life’s way of telling you to slow down, and making it too easy to ignore those lessons sends several bad messages. If there are no consequences, then there’s no reason to be cautious, or plan. So it should be a quest to find a cleric that will bring your friend back, or one that has the resources to do so. For those that have seen Critical Role, I like how Matthew Mercer has made resurrection into a skill challenge, that the deceased’s friends get to play through some grief, get to convince the spirit to return to the body. (Rules are here.)
It’s also possible to take death off the table entirely, unless it’s by player choice. Some games do this in the rules as written: when you go down you’re taken out of the scene, but to kill you the bad guys have to do something deliberate, obvious and preventable. Killing Blow One…. Killing Blow Two…. ….. Killing… Blow… Three. Maybe instead of dying, the PC gets captured. Or disfigured (“Sure, my character lost a hand, but I could have died!”) Or the consequences can be off-loaded onto the environment: “You wake up, hours later, still weak from blood loss. You can barely raise your head, and when you do, you can see the village… burning.”
I’ve mostly been looking at this from the perspective of player character deaths because things are different for game masters. Our ‘characters’ are the rest of the world, and as we love more widely we should love less deeply. It’s not a good thing for a GM to get attached to an NPC the way a player does. We have to be able to kill our darlings, or let the PCs do it, and smile about it because it made for good story. One of the Principles for GMs of Apocalypse World is to “Look through Crosshairs,” as a reminder that the setting is lethal, and any NPC can get killed. Accept that it’s not just possible but desirable, so long as the death is meaningful. (In Apocalypse World that meaning might simply be “You can get killed any time here. Pay attention.”) If you need a victim for a crime, make it someone they know. It will carry more weight, and it saves you the effort of having to establish a new character and convince the PCs to care about them.
Losing a character sucks. Do what you can to make sure it doesn’t take the fun out of the game. Get the player back involved as soon as possible. Maybe you’re playing a game where character creation is quick, and you’re in a place where a new person could join the party relatively easily. Fantastic. You could even skip the “We don’t trust the new guy” bit with the use of a flashback. Break from the story for a minute to go back to ten years ago, or during the war, or some appropriate point in the past, when the party met the new character for the first time. Then when the flashback is over, they re-encounter their old friend. How good it is to see them! There is so much to catch up on. What have they been doing for so many years?