Monday, August 17, 2009

On Death and Dying in Roleplaying Games

A big discussion is always generated whenever anyone discusses PC death in RPGs. It's one of those sharply defined subjects where everyone has an opinion, and anyone who tries to convince them otherwise will have to pry that opinion from their cold, dead minds. I normally avoid writing about such subjects, but i will herewith offer my opinion, with the stated proviso that you are perfectly free to disagree - that's what comments are for - and I won't mind at all if you do, and we can agree to disagree without it being some kind of make or break litmus test. I will pause here to allow anyone who wants to get all angry about it to leave the blog...

OK? We're good? Let's go on!

First of all, this is one of the most simple to change mechanics in most systems. If you don't like what the designer offers, it's easy enough to just change it, so do so if you like the game otherwise, it's not really a valid reason to reject a game on its own, one way or the other. In a few games this sort of thing is inextricably tied into other things, so you can't just delete it. I tend not to like these games anyway, because I think they are over engineered, but your taste may vary, so look before you leap.

I'm generally in favor of the characters running the risk of death, though I generally place that risk low - see Life Spirals elsewhere in this blog. In addition, I like giving the PCs lots of ways to avoid death - sometimes immunity from limited forms of random death, as in PC immunity to random cannon fire In Harm's Way; Luck; limited auto-success or auto-fail; etc. In exchange, though, my rolls are in the open, and if a character *does* die, he dies. No fudging. Generally, these deaths are the result of a PC pushing things too far and failing. So be it. That's a good thing, in my book. They knew what the risk was, and they chose to ignore the warning. If the potential gain wasn't worth the risk, they wouldn't have run it. These deaths seem to come off rather heroic in general, and are remembered fondly by the party.

Some genres shouldn't have PC death as a GM-only option, like 4 color Supers. Gritty street level supers is another matter. Pulp games should be very chary of random, meaningless deaths, but a heroic death? Awesome! It's all about the feel you want for the genre you are emulating.



  1. Need I respond? I think not in detail. Suffice it to say that I believe what you describe is best handled with at the group level, not the rules level. I could also see it handled on the Setting level but that is an argument for a different time.

    And no, I am not enraged or think you are wrong.

  2. Nah! I know where you are coming from, Bill. :D


  3. I have found I enjoy rules that do not have any rules for character death, instead handling it as a fictional concern. It allows us to focus on the interesting parts and keeps things plausible. Might not work that well for a game where risk of death is significant and there all the time, though.

  4. One thing I find interesting is the design focus on PC death, while PC defeat is essentially ignored. PC defeat is ignored in many rules sets, mine included (for the most part). It is often assumed that PCs *can* fight to death. Surrender, even involuntary surrender, is so seldom an option. Why? Because mechanics allow PCs to fight on and on and on. At the table, when I GM, the risk of PC death is low. Not because of any mechanical tool, simply because that is my choice. The risk of PC defeat, however, is average. Again, mechanics have little to do with it.

  5. @ Tommi:

    Personal tastes are ultra important here. Some people like the death card off the table, some like it front and square, and others feel differently depending on the genre.

    @ Rich:

    Exactly! that's why the Life Spiral bit. In my games, PCs *can't* fight to the death. I GM the same way - defeat is always a viable option, even without death.


  6. I actually describe the mortality level of my games almost before anything else. I have a pretty high rate in most of my games, so it's important top share that out in the beginning. And the ruleset encourages smart can trasnlate that as it kills dumb players.

    I have only once (in 33 years) had a player feel that a death was unwarranted or unfair.

    That being said, this is one of the things that really sets the tone of a camapaign. A defining detail.

    This being said, I am known to maim and injure PCs and NPCs when death could happen, as well as capture them. Especially when it is a bad roll that does it.