The topic for this month’s RPG Blog Carnival is Life & Death in RPGs. I was inspired to jump in by an excellent post over at The Action Point. For more details about the RPG Blog Carnival visit the archive of past blog carnivals over at Nevermeet Press.
Characters live and characters die. As players we are often significantly more focused on how characters live. Character death is even rarely discussed until someone slips from the mortal coil (even if only briefly). So let’s talk about character death; how to handle it, and where to go from there.
Surprise! You’re dead.
Depending on the game system being used and how you play it character death may occur every session or never occur during the course of a campaign. For most adventurers, investigators and the like death is not a planned event, but the result of a short sharp shock. The death of a character can be a shock for the player as well.
I will admit the first time I had a character die I was flabbergasted, dumbfounded and was rapidly ran through disbelief and denial. Critical hit with a shotgun ripped a hole through the edge of a tree and through the professor. Surely there was some mistake. It couldn’t be that easy! What about the tree? Are you sure it was critical? He can’t be dead yet, he’s the central character in the story! Etc.
Am I really dead?
In some games death is a less consistent condition, a less persistent state. In a Fantasy or a Superhero game you are less likely to be completely dead or completely gone than in say a Horror game. The finality of death may not be appropriate for your current game. What do you do then?
With the semantic switch from dead to dying, a character can be spared instant death. You are merely unconscious and dying, but not quite dead yet; there is still a chance to save you. In more recent editions of Dungeons and Dragons this is the default. A character felled by an Orc still has time to be saved by healing magic, or they can just be patched up after the battle is finished. He was only mostly dead, not completely dead.
The players and the game master should decide on whether to use this and to what extent before the game even starts. The discussion becomes less objective when a character’s life hangs in the balance.
Deus ex Machina
At the moment when all seems lost, when our hero seems to have reached their limit, when they were that close, something sweeps in saves the day! You may have seen this before. Gandalf famously saved a bunch of hobbits on the very borders of Rivendell with a swell trick. Eagles save everyone in the end. A Martian invasion felled by a cold.
The game master has the prerogative to sweep their hand down at any moment and save any character from any peril that may befall them, even death. I would urge you to reserve this only for situations that are appropriate. Don’t beg for it, either.
Using magic or technology to return the dead to life is well established in many genres. Orpheus went on a perilous journey to the underworld to return his love to the world of the living. Commander Shepard is reconstructed meticulously with gene-tech in the Mass Effect series. Clerics resurrect fallen comrades with divine powers.
The very possibility of people being able to easily return to life can radically change a world though, so it would might highly inappropriate for some genres and themed games. If rules for resurrection aren’t in your game (or even if they are), you can always make resurrection a story event. I wouldn’t make the price too low, or you run the risk of cheapening death.
You’re actually dead. Now what?
Perhaps the white knight on a charger didn’t come, perhaps he came too late, or perhaps he trampled you on the way through. Either way, death is sticking around. You might as well make the best of it, but what do you do with a dead character? Is the character just dead and that’s that? If you’ve ever lost someone, or been to a funeral, you will know that it usually isn’t just over and done with when they turn of the lights. What do you do then?
The dying sometimes have last requests. These range from a glass of water, to vengeance on their killers, to even raising their son in their stead. Richard III sought a horse in exchange for his kingdom with his finals breaths (and I bet some horse monger somewhere got really excited but didn’t know why).
The last wish or last request of the dying is a great opportunity for role-play! It is a final chance to define your character in some significant way. It could begin some major quest. Just don’t take too long espousing your final words unless you are intentionally aiming to make a charade of the affair.
Most cultures have succinct and somber ceremonies to honor the dead. These lend their own weight to death. If you were shocked by their passing or had a particular attachment to a character, death rights are a good way to send them off.
Fortunately, within this macabre carnival we have going on; the random dm has a simple yet elegant means for devising your own death rites.
If you find yourself dead, but have a spirit that doesn’t want to stay dead, reincarnation may be the path for you back to the living! Without limiting it to the traditional religious scope of reincarnation, this could be a clone, you could be transferred to a golem, you could be reborn, your spirit could simply migrate or any number of possibilities.
You might stop by Dark Dungeon 2nd Edition for an entire series on reincarnation!
Your character may not want to stay dead for another reason entirely, because they are now amongst the restless dead! Dungeons and Dragons has both Revenants, beings pressed into service of the Raven Queen post mortem, and Ghostwalk, an entire supplement on playing as a ghastly visage of your former self, amongst other ideas. Vampirism and Zombification also are methods of becoming that may be beyond your choice.
Returning a character as something undead opens up a wide range of possibilities for reinterpreting and re-examining your character. Regardless of who they were in life, they are something very different in undeath. This is bound to change a character both contextually and mechanically. It may just be worth dying for.
Taking up the mantle
Just because the character is dead doesn’t mean that is the end of the line. The character might even have friends, family, or comrades that will take up the mantle for them. You might have heard of Inigo Montoya and his quest for the six-fingered man, or you might remember Davy Crockett and the Alamo.
We recently had a campaign revived after a TPK (total party kill) finale. Two different players decided to take up former character’s causes allowing us to revisit that particular scenario and villain. This can be used to carry on a specific element of a character, without being tied the character as it was.
A Fresh start
Though there are many ways to explore a character’s death and various ways to revisit the character in a different light, starting fresh with a new character is the most conventional route and is often the best course. Letting go of a character isn’t always easy though.
Use your best judgment.
If you take nothing else away from this post, at least discuss character death at your table for your game, preferably before it becomes an issue as death comes knocking.