Hmm, it might appear some people missed the point of my earlier post.
Let’s start out with a different tact: if there are rules incorporated in an RPG for characters to DIE (say, for example, when they reach 0 or -10 “hit points”), then there should be no bones made about characters dying. It’s part of the game.
Don’t bitch at me that your character died. And please don’t save my character because he only died due to “unlucky chance.” If unlucky chance is part of the game, and I die because of that, then that’s part of the game.
Don’t save me (or fudge death) until I “do something stupid” or “make some critical mistake.” That’s just saying, “wait until the GM decides you are deserving of death.” And what the hell kind of arbitrary rule system is that?
If you don’t like that a poisoned arrow or dart or spiked pit or spider hiding in the bed sheets bit you and you failed your poison save (and thus are foaming at the mouth, dying in agony), then don’t play a game that has poison saves. If you don’t like being surprised by a pair of medusa and failing your “turn to stone” save, then don’t play games that have petrifaction. If you don’t like a pair of random spear hits reducing you to zero hit points and killing your second level character…well, shit, you are probably playing the wrong damn game.
Now having said that, for some genres it may be inappropriate to make death a part of the game. If you watch a James Bond movie, you don’t expect Bond to get greased in the second act…and if you’re watching an action TV serial like Burn Notice, you don’t expect the principle characters to die unless it’s a “very special episode” or the series finale or something. After all, if a member of the A-Team got axed every episode, well, it would be a pretty short season.
For other genres, character death is totally fine and expected. If you’re playing a game based on the film Red Dawn, one expects the occasional PC to die in order to emphasize the tragedy of the situation and the horror of war. Otherwise, the themes of the game become comical or (at the least) lose their gravity…and then why even bother playing?
In the typical Western genre, the default trope is one where life is cheap and enforcement of the Law is a matter of personal responsibility (taking down outlaws because the sheriff can’t or riding posse as a deputized citizen or acting like a Clint Eastwood-style bounty hunter). When these tropes are used, then it must be possible for PCs to get killed…both by well-placed shots or random-flying bullets. If your Western is NOT typical, and about something other than casual lead poisoning, then you need other rules…and probably ones that don’t require dying mechanics at all (or where the dying only occurs in the context of something greater: see Dogs in the Vineyard).
Here’s the thing, though (and the point of my prior post): RPG design tends to include rules for killing folks or getting killed, even when that’s NOT what the game is supposed to be about. Is ElfQuest really about fighting and killing? I don’t think so (in the comics, the violence was generally incidental to the rest of the story). But the EQ RPG had an elaborate Chaosium-based combat system built in…and whenever we ran the game, combat became the centerpiece of the game play (as did PCs getting their limbs hacked off).
I think it’s silly that RPGs just don’t come out and say “players don’t die.” The original (D6) Star Wars system basically tells GMs that PCs should never be allowed to die…so why put rules for “mortally wounding” player characters in the game. I mean, ANY wound takes out a stormtrooper and other extras; the main reason for an elaborate damage table is determining how badly hurt a PC is...and it's pretty pointless to list "mortal wounds" and provide rules for how long a character takes to die if the GM isn't supposed to let 'em give up the ghost anyway.
What I’m asking is: should we (designers) really be slaves to the old chestnut that “well, death has to be modeled SOMEhow in the game.” Does it? Does it really?
I don’t think so.