Character death

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The Gnome Stew article featured in the newsletter the other day, Death and Genre, got me thinking about this rather controversial topic. Like Angela Murray, the author, I never really liked the idea of characters dying early and randomly.

The fun in dying

However, I realise this is a very valid way of playing, and that it also bring in much fun to the table, provided you lean on the roll-playing side of RPGs. I suppose a system encouraging quickly designed characters is preferable in this case: something like a strong dose of templates in GURPS, or very light systems like WaRP (the original system in Over the Edge and recently released as a standalone, context-free system by Atlas Games) or even pre-generated characters. I know that as a player, I would not like to spend more than twenty minutes on character creation if I should expect the poor chap to meet a cruel death in the next four hours. Note that games like Wraith or Paranoïa don’t count here: being dead is the starting point in Wraith, but this is the beginning of your real character career rather than the end, and getting killed repeatedly in Paranoïa is more of a game mechanic than a dramatic event in itself.

As good as dead

A character doesn’t need to die to become unplayable: a barbarian, a doctor or a spaceship pilot are of little use as soon as they’ve lost their last thread of sanity. This brings us to Call of Cthulhu, where complete madness is the best a player can hope for his character. I find this interesting, because Call of Cthulhu really is about ambiance and role-play, rather than hack and slash (or, possibly, hit and run…). Everyone knows the PCs will eventually lose their mind, the only questions are when and how. The new take on the Myth, Trail of Cthulhu, tries to put even more focus on the ambiance, by removing much of the randomness in the investigation part. The GM has even more time to spend on conveying the atmosphere and on building tension until the PCs face the ultimate horror of the scenario. I believe the whole point of these games, from a player perspective, is to explore the last days of an investigator of the unspeakable: the gradual fear and the irresistible vertigo in front of the unknown.

Worse than death

In other contexts, dying is not really an option or at least, a satisfactory option. Castle Falkenstein, like the novels that inspired the setting, promotes instead the idea of confronting the heroes with a fate worse than death. In these contexts, their life is not necessarily the most valuable asset the characters have; instead, they might face the dreadful prospect of seeing their honour spoiled, their intelligence put to question, their iron will bent like nothing and their friends overturned… All this can build up to the pinnacle of a session or a campaign, where the whole party can participate, along with the GM.

Killing PCs

In the end, I find the alternatives more attractive than straight death. Killing a character is usually not what I want to do as a GM: if I want to give players some sense of the danger they’re in, I can always have an NPC develop a close relationship with the PCs and then have something bad happen to this character. The players then can feel the danger, but they also get a chance to actually play this tension. Again, as is explicitly encouraged in games like Call of Cthulhu or Castle Falkenstein, substituting a carefully crafted, progressive slide towards unhappy events to the full stop of a sudden death opens rich perspectives in terms of role-play and story development.

Willingly killing your own PC

However, sometimes death can also bring something to the story. Players can choose to sacrifice their PC for the benefit of the rest of the group as well as that of dramatic tension. A well played sacrifice can really become memorable and turn an otherwise average character into something more, that’s really part of the story of the campaign. It’s another way for players to add something to the story and actually share storytelling with the GM. In this respect, losing a character through such a sacrifice reminds of character loss to insanity in Cthulhu games: it’s a great opportunity for a player to shine, and  for the PC in question to leave a dent in the world. Of course, it might not always be as easy as it sounds

Death as a bond

Character death can also be the start of a campaign, or a new start for an old one going a bit run of the mill. It might be a harsh but effective way to bring a group back together, or to give them a good reason the get along and work together. Finding a common goal to a party can be surprisingly difficult… The death as a bond trick can work especially well in campaigns spreading over several generations, like Pendragon, but also in standard, shorter campaigns, where group unity might be failing a bit.

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