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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!