Monday, August 8, 2011

Genre Conventions & PC Death

Here's something I've been thinking about the last couple days/weeks/hours (it just keeps popping into my head, yo):

Must the same RPG conventions be applied to ALL role-playing games?

The answer to this (as with most rhetorical questions) is "of course not," but I'm thinking of two very specific conventions with regard to "traditional" (read "not-experimental-nor-Indie") role-playing games. The two I'm thinking of are:

- character improvement over time
- character death

Whether you're looking at D&D (any edition) or Vampire the Masquerade or even Amber Diceless, you can see there are rules presented in each for A) improving one's character over time, and B) "dying" in the game (assuming your GM isn't going to fudge survival when your character's number is up).

These hoary conventions, the basic "win/loss" philosophy 'ported directly from the original D&D game to most every RPG ever since, are so standard that I wonder if that's not the first consideration most designers have when creating a new game. "What's the advancement/death mechanic going to be in THIS one?"

[by the way, I'm not covering a whole lot of new ground here...the Indie folks have already addressed this both in theory and in their games. However, I'm looking at it with regard to more traditional, i.e. Old School, traditional style RPG design]

But (and here's the thing I keep pondering) are they necessary for ALL RPG genres? That is, are they necessary conventions for games based on literary (or other) antecedents that don't normally have character death or improvement over time? And specifically here, I am talking about permanent character death. In any adventure serial (the basis for a multi-session RPG campaign), it is anthesis for the continuing story to have the principal characters die, right? How can you continue to sell the serial when the main character gets offed?

And I'm not just talking about comic books (though that's the first one that springs to mind)...look at space opera serials like Buck Rogers and Star Trek and Firefly. Sure, characters DO die (eventually) in the movies...but a movie is the RPG equivalent of a "one-off" adventure, meant to stand alone on its own merits. In the series, you don't see the main characters dying.

Would it be appropriate to have two different systems in place for an RPG? A one-off, no improvement, death-on-the-table version and an opposite number (serial, improvement over time, death-off-the-table)? Just a random thought.

Here's what I think: some genres (I realize that's a loaded term) are conducive to a high death count, even amongst PCs, including sword & sorcery fantasy (though perhaps not Hanna Barbarra He-Man fantasy...), post-apocalyptic, and the western genre. Also, any kind of mob/crime or war game (major characters die fairly often in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series, but to me that's a war story similar to Japanimation space serials rather than "space opera adventure").

Genres that are NOT conducive to character death include:

  • Superhero
  • Space Opera
  • Anything that might be a WB show (witches, vampire hunters, etc)
  • Super Spy (of the James Bond, Avengers, Mission Impossible TV series variety)

Genres that may or may not be conducive to character death:

  • Pulp serial (modern day, like Lost, or early 20th century)

Genres that are pure RPG inventions like Shadow Run? I don't know, though probably death is okay (seeing as how they were invented with the standard RPG conventions in mind).

I've been told on more than one occasion that PC death "isn't fun," something with which I totally disagree. However, sometimes it is inappropriate depending on the genre one is seeking to emulate.

More on this I said, it's something that keeps popping into my head lately.


  1. To address the issue of character improvement--I think it's totally possible to construct a long-term campaign in a traditional rpg setting using no mechanical character improvement system (skill/level increases).

    This would instead put the burden of "improvement" in two other areas:

    1. Enhancement - better and more stuff is ultimately makes the difference between powerful and not-so-powerful characters, and on top of that the cleverness of the use of them.

    2. Development - links to communities, improvements in reputation, cultivation of contacts and connections to the game world and the characters in it are how characters become more powerful. This can be as simple as acquiring allies for physical conflicts or developing economic ties with groups in an area. And the growth of character stories and personality can be a major element of this as well. Granted, a lot of this presupposes a more social-style game than hack-and-slash dungeon-crawling...

  2. Wait, Superhero campaigns aren't conducive to PC death? I think my superhero characters have died more times than in all other genres combined—often at my request. Given the revolving-door afterlife that seems to be present in most comic-book universes, death is really just an excuse to play a different character for a while.

  3. @ Taketoshi: Some Old School games (notably Traveller) have already tackled the "no improvement" thang. Here, I am mainly concerned with character death.

    @ Drnunch: And here I am talking about PERMANENT character death. As in, "your character's dead, make a new character." Depending on the superhero game you're playing (say, Capes versus Heroes Unlimited) PCs may have a better chance of "coming back from the dead."

  4. It's the lightning-bolt-out-of-the-blue deaths that everyone complains about in our game. I think no one has a problem with deaths related to obviously risky or stupid behavior, or even normal combat.

    Besides making people grumpy, I think it's bad for game pace if everyone is checking every square inch for poisonous spiders with a 10' pole.

  5. @ Fumers: Oh, I agree...but that's not really what I'm talking about in this post.

  6. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that Indie games have already tackled this subject. D&D mostly supposes that death is on the table. One game that I really love is Risus - you can play a game of Risus where PC death is completely off the table and still have fun.

    The rules of the game state that if you reduce a players dice to zero - you get to decide what happens to him/her. In certain games this means character death. But in other games this could mean a large variety of things (submission, teleported to another place, in a comic game it could just mean that the opponent giggled and now has to buy beer).

    Therefore, defeat in the context of that game means that the victor gets narrative control to move the game forward.

  7. The risk of losing your character permanently certainly adds excitement to a game. But the more you invest in your character, be it time, backstory, or economic resources, the more of a pain in the ass it is to keep creating new ones when the old ones die off.

  8. "I've been told on more than one occasion that PC death "isn't fun," something with which I totally disagree."

    Yeah, this was one of the things that started me questioning the Forge model of game design. The idea that we know in advance what is fun, and that we can therefore scientifically create it on demand, was disturbing to me. I see fun as art, not science.