This weekend I saw two events involving a storyteller handling the death of a character.
Saturday I played Exalted and the brand new circle faced a diplomatic meeting with a group of Rakshas and the situation went south. The two powerful bodyguards of Ethereal Dance of the Leaf, lady of the wyld bubble visited by the circle, proved themselves as a hard challenge and a dire brawl ended with one bodyguard ripping the head of an exalted apart.
OT: the reason why the situation went south is in my opinion quite interesting and it should deserve a dedicated article about metagame and storytelling, probably thursday.
Sunday I was playing D&D and the game stalled for quite a time because players were not able to solve a riddle, failing the test meant petrification. The barbarian, trying to get things moving, improvised a strategy – not correctly. The barbarian failed the single save and the DM, who was uncomfortable because that doing something, even if designed as wrong, was crashing the stall, benefitting the experience of the players. The DM decided then to fix the situation using the standard rules for petrification, allowing a second save which players could react at.
From here I asked myself:
Why do characters die?
The answer can seem silly, but it basically is “because it’s part of the game”. But let’s think a bit harder about it.
In the first event, death was unexpected and, in perspective, necessary: it’s important to underline that choices have consequences, it lights up focus and interest in the game. The death of a character is a consequence as any other: these new characters understood the hard way that the world is a dangerous place, even if you are an exalt.
The latter event was a problem solving issue. You need to find the source to fix a stalling game: leaving no time boundaries is bad design and if you sum up no time limits, death-inducing mistakes, and an unsolved riddle, that stall is the certain result. To solve it, you need to face one of the three points: you can put pressure, forcing the group to act or to face a different challenge; you can lower the severity of consequences; you can give a hint to solve the riddle.
For each of these approaces, my point is usually to make the death of a character meaningful, representing a consequence of their choices and not the result of a bad dice roll.
Here narrative and gaming viewpoints clash, each one requiring to respect a different focus.
What’s the right choice?
Well, that’s a bad question. A better question can be “What’s the right choice for the game we are playing?“. Every game has rules to determine death but many games have golden rules*, orichalcum rules**, and so on, to give a broader space for the storyteller to move in and define the style of play at the table.
* = Golden rule: if you don’t like a rule, change it
** = Orichalcum rule: if a rule doesn’t make sense within the story, the story is right and the rule is wrong
If you want to take a more strict-to-rules approach – so if the dice roll badly it’s just part of the game and you have to elaborate how to keep the plot together – it’s a legitimate one, as much as not using dice rolling for certain situations: there is not a single way the game is meant to be played, just talk to each other to get a common ground before playing (if you are fluent in italian there are friends of mine who had a very interesting chit-chat about that).
Moreover, some games give some space to the players on how to handle their own characters death: Deathwatch and 7th Sea, to give a couple of names, have interesting ideas that can be used in other games (golden rules work both ways, after all).
There are other problems, nontheless.
The character died: what now?
If a character dies, what happens next? The player usually wants to keep playing, but playing what?
An approach that staggers, but doesn’t solve, the problem are resurrection effects which in games like D&D exist and are part of the game. Death without consequences, though, becomes a problem, so there are two choices: placing the consequences on the resurrection itself or on the plot.
The easy path is give resurrections a limit beyond which they do not work anymore. A house rule I’m using and which I had good feedbacks on is to permanently mark a failed death saving throw after a resurrection. In this way the character is still completely efficient until he finds himself facing death again, inducing the feeling that death is an inconvenience you can handle with care.
Another option is to use the economic impact: resurrections are expensive, but this has meaning if money is a resource you need to manage. This is a specific aspect that I’d like to talk about in a dedicated article (this is the missing pillar I was talking about in the exploration post).
If you want to put consequences on the plot, it’s the plot (and the storyteller) that must be designed to get meaningful alterations because of characters failure: if a character dies the heroes will not make it in time and the high cleric will sacrifice the kidnapped prince. This approach defuses a lot of interesting situations: a hostage with a knife held at his throat does not stop heroes who can resurrect the hostage, for example. On the other hand, a Death with revolving doors™ approach unlocks a different lot of interesting situations and strategies.
Without resurrections you need to keep in mind two viewpoints, story and game.
For the story, the player must play a different character. Usually I offer the player to customize one of the NPCs and use it as his new character: this grants a character already involved in the story, with relations and purpose. Planning a new character from scratch can be done, but it’s better to involve all players to weave it in the plot.
For the game, you must think that starting from a new entry-level character brings a gap in power that can make it a frustrating experience in games like D&D or Vampire and, even if it can be interesting, more often than not it’s just demoralizing.
Since I’m a fan of milestones in D&D, I usually just tell the player to roll a character of the same level with a small selections of magic items. I did that very few times and it worked, but I don’t have a big statistic analysis on that. I included guidelines for this in 13th moon rules, pay what you want on the DMSGuild, in english and italian.
How many times do you see characters’ deaths? What happens next?