“You Have Died of Dysentery:” Death in Games

Posted: October 16, 2013 in D&Z game development
Tags: , , ,

Today I was part of a conversation about PC (player-character) death.  In other words, when/why/how players should die in games.  This is a subject I have considered at length with respect to Z Game, and I already have ideas about how I will handle PC death, which I will discuss in a limited capacity below (I don’t want to spoil anything for my players!).  Additionally, my PF groupmates raised some excellent points that help to articulate those considerations.

First, credit to my friends Shawn and Mike for their excellent ideas.  Both agree that first and foremost a game must be challenging at times in order to be exciting.  There needs to be a real, palpable sense that the decisions players make are often life-or-death.  The most obvious way this challenge manifests itself is through combat encounters, of course.  If a group of level 10 characters keeps having hordes of level 1 monsters thrown at it, the excitement is not there.  There is no risk, no chance that a misstep will result in disaster.

On the other hand, careful balance is required on the DM’s part to make sure that the encounters are not too difficult.  If I accidentally unleash an overpowered monster on the group and they wipe out, that’s my fault–not theirs–and anyone really invested in their character will end up resenting me because they never even had a chance to survive.


A more subtle way that challenge, or threat, can manifest itself is

in the difficulty or effort required to build a replacement character.  “The more time-consuming/complex it is to make a PC, the less willing I am to simply off them or have mine die.”  –Shawn.  I agree.  This is one place where I won’t be willing to work up the difficulty level in my game, since one of the foundational goals for Z Game is to keep it relatively simple for new RPGamers.  But there may be options, like, for example, forcing a dead player to come back a level lower than his/her counterparts.

Next, Mike very eloquently laid out four specific considerations re player death.  I will paraphrase for the sake of brevity:

  1. What is the point of the game?  Is it to tell a story (meaning that the narrative arc is the ultimate concern and the top priority)?  Or is it a quick, combat-based, high-challenge encounter?  If the former, then it’s very possible that PC deaths will need to be limited or prevented so that the players can develop a history for each character, and relationships with one another, over time.  That will very much be the case in Z Game.
  2. What are the needs of the story?  I feel that character death can be an extremely powerful plot device, in any medium, as long as it is used properly and judiciously.  (Nika Harper of Geek & Sundry touches on this topic in a recent upload on her excellent Wordplay vlog: How to Write a Great Death Scene.)  I feel that I have found an appropriate place for it in planning my Z Game campaign.  Mike goes further, posing a simple but important question: does the story allow for PC death?  If the narrative style is such that new (playable) characters can be introduced without much trouble, then maybe death should not be much of a concern.  If not, then PC death needs to be managed carefully.
  3. Are there ways out of death?  Is resurrection a possibility, and how easy/cheap is it?  The permanence of death will affect how players play their characters.  And, unfortunately, permanent death can again result in resentment if a player feels his PC was unjustifiably knocked off.  Despite that concern, I do plan to make death permanent in Z Game.  The decision was made largely because this is supposed to be a “real world” game (no magic, spells, or other high-fantasy appointments), but I do also want the players to get attached to their avatars–which I feel will be enhanced if they know they can’t bring back a dead PC.
  4. Is there a sense of entitlement among the players?  If encounters are too easy, or if the game lacks significant consequences for dangerous or reckless behavior, then there is no disincentive to prevent players from acting like their PCs are immortal.  With this in mind, the chance of PC death will perhaps need to be a variable rather than a constant, dependent upon the attitude players take toward their adventure.

This brings me to my position on PC death in Z Game.  The single-sentence summary is that I, as DM, plan to have full control over PC death.  If the DM is “God,” then I will play as such.  I will not say anything further in this early post about the mechanisms I will implement in that vein.  Suffice it to say I hope my players will be aware that death is a very real possibility at all times, and there will be consequences for having to rebuild a new PC.

This was a fun post to draft!

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  1. shichitenhakki says:

    Death is a real tricky one and it does depend a lot on your players, and probably their maturity. Many junior players can become very closely emotionally attached to their characters and when they die this can be challenging. However, death is an important learning experience because it is, after all, just a game. For me, your Story category is the most powerful driver: sometimes death is the inevitable consequence of that fantasy life and it is a correct and satisfying end to that story.

    • Jim Reichert says:

      I had a thought on this… Have you heard of the game “Dwarf Fortress?” Is a video game, but it introduced something pretty special to gaming in general. Not a mechanic, per se, but the idea that it can be fun to lose– as lone as one loses epically. It calls to mind the Dwarven or Klingon ideal that there can be no better death than one in battle.

      It would be interesting to run a session (or TRY to run a session) where the stated goal would be to die in the most epic way possible. You don’t want to throw you lives away, surely, but give them for a great cause… to be written up in the history books.

      Anyway, it’s just an idea… and, if the character generation went very quickly, it mind be a fun experiment to run– as long as the participants were in on it!

      • shichitenhakki says:

        I don’t know that particular one but that is a great mechanism. If you have a continuing campaign world then the dramatic and heroic death of a character can become part of the cultural traditions of the place.
        So the next time the player, as another character, goes into a bar and hears a bard singing about the heroic deeds of dead so-and-so, that could be very rewarding. That’s immortality right there.

  2. I ran a D&D session tonight where a cavern filled with water once an artifact was taken. When climbing down into it, the party had explicitly left a rope tied above that they could climb back up, or quickly flick to dislodge and bring down. Once the place started to fill with water, 2 of the party members left almost immediately, their feet barely wet. They returned to the rope, and then decided that wasn’t fast enough, so used magic to exit the place even faster, skipping the climb entirely. The remaining 3 lingered to check out the rest of the rooms. Eventually they were submerged in 30 feet of water, with monsters attacking them. 2 of the group decided it was time to GTFO of Dodge, and started to head back to the entrance. The remaining one still wanted to explore, while drowning. Being tied to one of the others caused a kerfuffle, but he drug them along, underwater, basically dying until he realized he might not make it. He then turned around and made for the exit, complaining how unfair it was that his character might die.

    In this situation, I setup the hazard, and gave them ample opportunity to escape it. 2 took the fast exit, 2 more decided they would take a bit more risk, and 1 was willing to risk his life and other’s, all to look around the next corner. Giving them an out to avoid death, I would have felt no remorse at all if one of three that remained underwater had drown.

    In the previous session, the group went around the wilderness hunting monsters for components(which I usually disregard for spells and rituals) for resurrections. Since that type of thing had recently been abused(4 of the 5 had died almost simultaneously, but they found a legal’ish way to abuse magic and bring everyone back), I decided that they could only revive people as many times as they had the components for. Now, our group of 5 has enough components to resurrect 4 people in their guild(alternate characters). They could have continued hunting, but felt that was enough.

    So, if you present opportunities for them to avoid death, and they ignore it, not your problem.
    If you present opportunities for them to cheat death, and they decide ‘close enough’, not your problem.

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