RPG Corner: Deathly shallows

Welcome to RPG Corner, a place where you can share your knowledge and thoughts of the Role Playing Game world. Each week we will have a new topic to discuss, so feel free to talk it up, make suggestions, post images, and have a good time.

This week's topic is death, because what could be cheerier on the eve of a weekend?

Happy Halloween Grim Reaper Images

Basically I am curious as to how you view death in your RPGs, and experiences you might have had with different methods of dealing with it. In the early days of the hobby, death of the player characters was pretty much a given, with even Total Party Kills not being all that uncommon. You were basically running more fleshed-out chess pieces, and the idea that you'd spend months or years investing so heavily into one would have been somewhat foreign.

Of course that changed pretty quickly, and now I get the sense that when you create a character for an RPG, you're expecting him or her (or it) to last a long time. We do get invested in them, and having them "die" on us is pretty jarring. This is particularly true in super-hero RPGs, at least in the campaigns I was in -- supers just don't stay dead all that much. I've lost track at this point how many times Hal Jordan, for example, has gone to the great beyond and come back.

Fantasy RPGs like D&D made it even easier via resurrection and reincarnation spells. But treating death as nothing more than an inconvenience ("We have to drag Bob back to town AGAIN?!) tends to cheapen it. I still remember the death of Metixa, a first level magic user who bit the dust early on in The Evil DM's Play By E-Mail campaign (warning, some images on linked site are NSFW!):

Unfortunately the campaign itself failed a saving throw shortly thereafter and was canceled, but because Jeff's campaigns treat death as final, losing her really "meant" something, at least as far as the story was concerned.

So how have the various campaigns you've been a part of treated death? How did the rules or the GM's treatment of death affect your enjoyment as a player? And what approach do you prefer, if you have a choice?

12 Responses to RPG Corner: Deathly shallows

  1. Avatar The Eric says:

    I don’t think I, or anyone else in my group, has had a character die. Common deaths are exactly why i will not play an early version of D&D.

  2. Avatar Me Myself & I says:

    As you mentioned Jeff a person can certainly invest quite a bit into a character. I am no exception. Despite that I don’t nessesarily mind when a character dies. All I ask is that the game is well balanced and that my character isn’t railroaded into it. WHenever I’m in a situation that death is likely I like to try to make the death have some meaning. For example, the character doing one last heroic deed like sacrificing himself for a friend (or something like it). I also like to play up the drama a lot then and try to make it as memorable as possible.

    All that being said, I have been in many adventure or campaigns when many other players characters have died while the survival rate of my characters has been a lot better. A lot of a character’s survivability depends on good diplomacy and good use of tactics which many people seem to overlook.

  3. Avatar Solander says:

    When I was in the army, we were a bunch who’d get together two or three times a month and play some good old DnD table version roleplaying.
    We were a good mix of people, and one of my companions was a gnome bard. He always managed to get into trouble. One time, during a village festival, he and our thief character wanted to try and rob a windwill up on a small hill. Figuring the owner had gotten into town that evening, the mill should be empty.
    The thief tried to pick the lock, but no such luck. He tried again and again. After the sixth time, his lock pick broke and jammed the lock. But that didn’t stop our mighty bard, oh no… he tried climbing up the wall towards the window. Halfway up, he fell down and lost some HP in the fall. But, he was pretty stubborn and tried again. This time he actually reached the window, but got hit by the windmill blade and fell down again. Since I was a cleric, I had to spend all my spells healing him.
    Finally, he had enough and started kicking and punching the door, and suddenly managed to knock it down. From inside he could hear the angry cursing from the sleeping windmill owner. He turned around to ask us for assistance, but only to spot me and the thief character running like mad down the hill. Then he got knocked out.
    The next morning we went up to the windmill, only to find him tied onto one of the windmill blades, with a sign that said “thief” on it, and completely naked.
    Our archer managed to shoot him down, after hitting his arms and legs two times by mistake, and he fell down again and I had to spend all my spells for healing him, again…
    We needed some new gear and went into town to visit the local blacksmith. Inside, our bard, naked of course, decided that we wanted a flail. He has a real tendency to mix up words and expressions however, and went up to the blacksmith and told him that he wanted a flail chest. A flail chest is a life-threatening medical condition that occurs when a segment of the chest wall bones breaks under extreme stress and becomes detached from the rest of the chest wall. The blacksmith looked at him… “Are you sure you want this?” he said. The bard nodded, and the black smith went into the back of his shop and retrieved a huge hammer. He then hit the bard so hard in the chest that you could hear the rib bones breaking underneath. Our bard friend fell into a corner and died from internal bleeding. Man, I have never laughed so much in my entire life. Which reminds me about a story with our naked bard friend, some dirty old rags, a nasty old hag and a deaf ogre. But that’s a story for another time.

  4. Avatar Moonshade says:

    I played for many years before I had a character die on me. It was quite memorable. We use critical fumbles and my character knocked herself out with her sword and had her throat slit by the Drow she was fighting.
    I usually mind having a character die, though I certainly don’t prefer for it to be a stupid situation (like above). In fact, on a couple of occasions, I’ve actually tried to get my character killed when I’ve been unable to play her for some reason or another.

  5. Avatar Connor S. says:

    Once apon a time Prince Eisgard was on a manly tough quest to destroy 12 trolls with only his blades to aid him. And his magic. And his dragon. But anyways! After smashing in the teeth of an insulting drunkard with the flat of his blade in a bar for saying he couldn’t do jack squat zip, he headed to the forest. When the trolls came out, he started using fire spells by the dozen. But he started taking several hits, and he was almost dead! Then he attempted to fly away on his dragon, but the last living troll jumped and caught the dragon, and killed Eisgard. But my DM is a softie and he got revived by the mystical and magical queen of the elves.

  6. Avatar Tim K. says:

    I GM 90% of the time. I’ve got two groups (Although one is on shaky ground,) and more than a few people wanting me to run a game online.

    I hate character death unless it is a deeply stupid choice the player makes:

    Such as jumping into the vacuum of space without a spacesuit, in a non-superhero game.

    Though that is less common than this: Dying to protect others, giving ones life in heroic sacrifice. I don’t like random “You die!” moments, although I’ve got a system that makes it quite possible. I try and let it be a heroic moment, making the good fight for others.

    I love gaming, and like the characters in a novel–the PC’s are the important movers ans shakers of the world. Killing them off should be important in some way. Otherwise its anti-climatic.

  7. Avatar Bearfoot says:

    I have had the fortune to not experience death unless the character was high enough level for raise dead.

    This is, for the record, not due to the GMs in quesiton. They are tough but fair. It’s due to luck mostly.

  8. Avatar Connor S. says:

    But I am a relatively new player, and have had no player deaths, with only two characters. But on my other character, I did come close to death once.
    Gorn, Raven, Koric, and Winley were to set out for their part-time companion’s castle. He was having troubles with the Githyankee army nearby. When his spies reported that the Githyankee force was going to attack, they set out immediately. When they arrived, they set battle plans and prepared for war. At the attack, red dragons rode by Githyankees and ground forces moved forward. The forces collided, and many died. Meanwhile Gorn ran through, slicing and chopping the enemies in his way. But he came to a Captain, and they circled skillfully. Then the Captain attacked with a lunge. Gorn dove out of the way, did a twirling stab, and saw the Captain’s head tumble to the ground. Victory. Then he claimed the Captain’s Vorpal Sword for himself. But his triumph was short, because seconds later a young and foolish grunt came charging at him. Gorn arrogantly chuckled, and tried to kill this one quick. But the attack was off. His blade fell to the ground, and the Yankee swung for his leg, which came off all too easily for a hero of Gorn’s expertise. While the grunt snickered and cheered himself, an arrow pounded through his chest.
    “So much for his win,” Gorn thought while he breathed his dying breaths. He got up, using a sword as a cane, and hopped off toward the castle while the battle ended around him. He would die with his friends at his side.
    Gorn awoke in the fortress infirmary, with Gorn and Winley smiling down at him. He thought Raven must have been smiling, but he couldn’t see because he used a helmet to hide his acid-burned face. (Different story) Then he looked down at his leg which was still there. Koric had used his second to last Genie wish for him.
    Yeah, kind of prissy and all’s well that ends well, but it was a fun battle, and I thought it was a good story. (P.S., it’s before I had Eisgard.)

  9. I put a lot of detail and history into making characters. Even when I’m playing Battletech or Car Wars (these are oriented toward combat and technology, human beings are there to sit and steer). Most of the GMs were Dexters (ruthless sots who made it a point to present over-whelming odds, certain death, and little reward). It got to the point where I would design characters but never play them.

    That’s one thing that I like about Hero System. The rules are designed around cinematic, comic book fighting. Super-villains are deadly, but the chances of a GM killing your character on a whim are slim. In fact, if your Champion is killed, you can easily call out the GM’s malfeasance.

    I ran GURPS campaigns. No apologies, I think it’s a great RPG system. Now, GURPS Supers is no Champions. Unless you have a 1,000 point character, your Super dies just as easily a normal.

  10. Avatar Simon Burley says:

    I’m co-author of a minor Superhero RPG – Squadron UK (nee “Golden Heroes”).

    The game was designed from the get go to simulate the comics (specifically Marvel comics of the 70’s/80’s). So most attacks do more “HTC” (Hits to Coma)than HTK, Heroes can dodge thugs bullets etc. etc. The chances of death are small.

    However, over the Years (best part of 3 decades urgh!) two things have arisen:

    1) Without the chance of death or debillitating injury players can respond to “menace” in a casual and careless manner. I think this is a problem that would occur in most games. You’ve got to have a real chance of dying or that Bard will just keep banging his head against the locked mill!

    2) The process of creating a character is FUN! (Especially in our rules which use a combination of random rolling and design rather than the old totally random systems or the newer totally designed systems.) Hero death is off-set by the joy of looking forward to making a new one.

    So over the years my games have slowly become more deadly. I used to take care to avoid killing anyone. Now I don’t set out to kill but if it happens it doesn’t bother me. Fortunately, in the early years of the game a 3rd party author produced a scenario that showed us designers just how deadly our “soft” game could be without changing any of the rules.

  11. Avatar Jadebrain says:

    I remember a DND 4.0 campaign where we played a group of gladiators in hell, fighting to buy our freedom. The house rules had stated that only fighters were allowed. But, of course, we needed a healer. So I had to seriously reduce the combat effectiveness on my fighter to become an effective healer (through multiclassing and such), and even then I wasn’t much of a healer. Then, one unfortunate session, the GM warned me that I was going to hate him. He sent us some house-ruled vampires who all attacked me, using a house-ruled attack that killed me instantly. A few days later, I rose as a vampire, and though my character was still used for a few sessions (eventually, I spoke with the GM and he allowed me to make a different character), he was useless, being a crappy fighter designed to heal but having to instead attack anyone who needed healing.

  12. Avatar X-stacy says:

    Jadebrain, your GM is a dick. A lot of them are, I guess–a friend of mine got killed in a White Wolf game because he failed to specify that he checked traffic before getting out of his car on the Interstate–but still. Deliberately gimping a character is not cool.

    The brother of the guy who killed my buddy in the White Wolf game had a go at DMing my group in a 2nd edition AD&D game that started in the dying world setting of Athas. Per the rules of Athas, we started the game at level 3, with stats that people from softer worlds could only dream of. I think we got up to level 5, maybe, before we wandered into Ravenloft, were mobbed by level-draining vampires, and ended the game dead at level 1. Whatever the opposite of fun is, that’s what that game was.