Monday, August 8, 2011

Genre Conventions & PC Death (Redux)

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.


  1. I think you're right. The tough question is, what's at risk if not death? Once you can answer that, the game pretty much writes itself.

  2. I think that saying RPGs should have rules that make them conform to the same conventions as other media isn't a good proposal. The things you're mentioning- TV, film, and even books come into this - all have a fixed outcome. The _only_ reason characters live or die in _any_ of these media, is because that is how they are written.

    RPGs cannot, by definition, follow the same rules. Sure, when I sit down to watch a James Bond film I know he's going to beat the bad guy and get the girl- thats what happens, and it doesn't stop me from enjoying it by any means. But the character doesn't know that, and in an RPG, provided a player knows it, it WILL have an effect on their character.

    In anything where the character is actively doing risky things (like the aforementioned Bond) a player would be safe in the knowledge that they could try anything and at worse suffer temporary setbacks-- because if the genre conventions are being followed their success is _guaranteed_. Maybe not at every juncture, but eventually.

    RPGs need failure conditions, and death is something that can be experienced by any character as one of those conditions. In order to maintain it as a _game_ rather than hipster-indie "interactive storytelling", I would insist that its always possible- however unlikely.

    The RPG you cite above, Star Wars D6, is one I've been running a campaign of recently. And while the players know I will be fairly lenient, the possibility of death (and grievous bodily harm) does remain.

  3. I get where you are coming from.

    However,characters do die in the Elfquest stories. Fights can be brutal and have lasting consequences even to thsoe who don't die. Did RQ combat satisfyingly portray that with about half of all blows maiming PCs ? Probably not.

    I played the Dallas game a long while back if I recall correctly there are no official rules for fights or death but that didn't stop us from the occasional fist fight or murder.

    Games don't need to be full of page after page of rules about combat , maiming, and death if the game isn't about combat maiming and death.
    Yet we often place PCs in situations where the resolution is through violence and the outcome could realistically be death.

    If we are modelling film/T.V. setting it's important to remember the featured characters and stars are the characters that make their saving throws almost all of the time but a whole bunch of other pilots get killed attacking the death star, only 2 characters survive to the end of From Dusk Till Dawn,and not everyone gets to go home at then end of Band of Brothers.

    Don't want death to be part of the game? Stay out of dogfights, light sabre duels,mugging trolls and climbing on the outside of skyscrapers with your bare-hands.

    RPGs let us do the dangerous stuff and walk away from the game table even if the characters don't make it.

  4. D&D, as played in the old school way, is what they call a "high trust" game. Players are willing to risk losing their characters so long as they feel the DM is a fair and impartial force. Lose that trust and your game is over.

    Any asshole can kill off a party and then claim "it was the dice!", even though he created the situation.

  5. @ Dusk: I was considering TV showss and comic book medium as easy examples of "serial adventures" (similar to any multi-session RPG with regular characters). One might also consider pulp literary serials (Conan, Doc Samson) or old movie serials (Flash Gordan, the Masked Marvel) as examples.

    @ JD: Again, in a war game (like T2000), I'd EXPECT there to be character death involved, just as I'd expect to see soldiers getting killed in Band of Brothers. If they're not dying, then the game (or show) is probably light-hearted Band of Brothers with Hogan's Heroes (or better yet, The Great Escape with Hogan's Heroes). Regarding EQ, while survival was a theme, I honestly don't recall any major characters dying for about 40 or 50 issues (to me, One-Eye is the equivalent of an NPC tribesmember). Fighting had fewer lasting consequences than say, the consequences or Recognition. To me, EQ is a story of exploration and relationship building (with humans, trolls, other elves, etc.).

    @ IG: Sure, and even if one is sticking within the bonudaries set by the game, I think there are some poor issues of "encounter balance."

    Again, though, that's not really the point of my post. I think character death IS part of D&D, and it is right to have rules that model it...and fortunately, it also has ways to COUNTER death (raise dead and wish spells for example). Dying and rising are part of the D&D game framework.

    I do NOT think such needs to be the case with ALL RPGs designed. THAT was my point.

  6. The elfquest rules were written when the comics were into 20 or so issues and in that time several characters are badly wounded or killed. About 20% of the pages of the comic in that run deal with conflict and injury.

    Cutter almost dies. One eye dies. A number of characters die in the madcoil backstory , life sure isn't kind to a number of humans,trolls and the go-backs during that run either.

    The story is about relations, identity, community and exploration but death and harm are there too. Combat isn't casual, it matters and this can be reflected by injuries in a game. The elves are just a tad too fragile as played out in the game rules.

    If EQ had gotten treatment more like that of Pendragon it would have been great but it predated it a tad.

  7. @ JD: Point taken (that is, I realize the RPG was written prior to issue #20 and that things looked pretty grim and, I realize MadCoil is one of the scenarios in the game and he was responsible for quite a number of Wolf Rider deaths).

    That being said, NEAR death (of Cutter or Redlance or Strongbow) is not the same as ACTUAL death, and the death of some nameless Go-Back or villainous troll is NOT the same as Player Character death. I can write flashback/backstory for any character that includes friends/relatives dying at the hands of humans and monsters...but that doesn't mean anything to the actual play of the game itself. And I would still contend that none of the principal characters (what I would consider Player Characters) died in the first 19 issues. Even One-Eye never actually died!

    While the troll-elf war was lots of fun and action, it's not a centerpiece to the conflict of the series. You can MAKE it the centerpiece (and with EQ's Chaosium/RQ system I would say that's really the only way I've found to run the game as written), but I think that's missing the point of the work as a whole. And THAT is due to the conceit of "this is an RPG and needs to include rules for combat and killing."

  8. Paranoia offers clones, death is frequent and comical.

    Car Wars offers clones. Death is hard to swallow because it means your car is probably blown up or parted out.

    D&D offers Raise Dead and clones, but only for high level characters. Death at low level is permanent, but at high level is trivial. It's generally not comical, but feels more like your Mario falling down a hole on the last level.

    Shadowrun (at least up to 2E) doesn't have clones or Raise Dead. Your PC is dead if he dies. Death has the same feeling as in D&D.

    Toon has a "knocked down" mechanic where your PC doesn't die but is instead just out of the action for a bit with stars and birdies circling his head. Death is a mild annoyance.

    As a side note, I think D&D focuses on combat rules because the participants were wargamers and primarily interested in combat (although the Braunstien style game wasn't, and Diplomacy was popular, so maybe this is a wash) and because the stakes are higher in combat.

    If you lose a combat, you die or are captured. If you lose an interrogation, you just don't get your info. If you lose a barter, you don't get a discount or the shopkeeper refuses to sell to you.

    There are too many automatically-combative monsters in the rules for the game to proceed without combat for very long.

    Combat is an easy answer. It's a simple chance taken. If you win you get what you want (that is, if what you want can be given by the other person, it can also be demanded under force). There are some cases where combat can't give you what you want. There are many cases where combat is not the best choice. But it's the easiest choice.

    Combat is the narrow part of a funnel of decision-making. You start out with lots of choices in an encounter, but as you exhaust the non-combat choices you are left with only combat or escape. If you select combat your choices immediately narrow because you can't often go back to parley (or sometimes escape!).

    It's a common choice. While this may be a circular argument involving what players want to do being influenced by the rules of the game, in an RPG with player agency players will occasionally want to use violence upon each other's PCs or against NPCs.

    The alternative is a game about soft marshmallow bunnies who can't hurt each other, or else a totalitarian regime where violence is punished by immediate vaporization from above. Unless the game is structured to prevent violence, players will do it anyway, and you need rules for it.

    Take a game that rewards friendship. If you attack someone that person is less friendly to you. The whole point is to gather as many friend points as possible. But in such a scheme, wouldn't stealthy thieving from folks to supply you with cash for presents to your friends be the equivalent? How about murdering people who already don't like you and selling their cadavers, thus raising your effective friendship quotient? I could envision a stock market trading game where you compete against other players to see who can make the most money, but at some point, you wonder why you can't just hire a goon to put the other dude in the hospital or hack his computer to make him trade poorly.

    Mille Bournes is a card-based car racing game but it effectively has combat in giving your opponent a flat tire or speed limit. I wonder whether assiduously restricting combat mechanics from a game, or else leaving them out and rendering the game incomplete, is even worthwhile. I like playing board games too, but even in those there is conflict that's analogous to combat. Parcheesi figures bounce opponents back to the start, similar to Sorry!.

    There's only so much Apples to Apples you can play before you want to go back to RPGs.