death in rpgs

Recently there has been some (occasionally heated) discussion of death in tabletop RPGs. Should a game indicate a character’s death without the consent of the player? Should a game ever indicate death? Is the forced authorial stance required to make a choice about whether or not your character dies destructive to fun?

People took extreme positions and made hurtful comments to others. I mean, of course they did, this was Twitter. That’s what it’s designed to do.

I don’t have an extreme position so if you were hoping for me to take a side and maybe insult someone you conflicted with sideways, too bad for you. Here’s my position and if you know me you will find this entirely predictable: it depends.

What does it depend on? I am so glad you asked.

I always choose to read and play a game with the assumption that the designer intended it. That is, every rule in it is there because it is part of the crafted experience that the designer is trying to achieve. Frankly I am certain that this is often more charitable than is realistic, but to assume otherwise (that games are just a stone soup of creative ideas without any intention other than to vaguely emulate something the designer remembers from their childhood) makes games uninteresting to me. So let’s assume all the rules are intentional.

Given this, if a game allows for the death of a character based on the roll of a die, then what was the designer thinking? In what way is this fun?

There are several answers that make sense to me.

One would be that there is a meta-game at work here (though this denies some of the I-hate-authorial-stance positions in a way, since the enjoyment of engaging with the system is partly in dealing with this mechanism) and that part of the objective is to mow through characters in a “funnel” to eventually get an unlikely survivor. This is definitely its own kind of fun!

Another is the idea that bad decisions should be punished. I don’t mean this in a dismissive way — it’s hardly a novel idea that a game might punish bad decisions and reward good ones. This would ideally be a game you can get good at so that you are improving your skills in order to avoid the penalty of character death. I understand (though don’t share) the taste for this. Some will argue that this is essential for verisimilitude (the game doesn’t feel real unless there are plausible penalties up to and including death) and while that’s not my experience I’m sure it’s a real experience of others. This sometimes feels like an argument after the fact — that in fact the game is a stone-soup of concepts and not intentionally designed — but that’s fine. The experience of the game is what counts and I’m happy to assume the author did this on purpose.

These are maybe the most obvious. I have also experimented with death as a way to level up (Hollowpoint) where the only way to get better is to die so that you get a character of higher rank whose first job is to get the group back on track after clearly failing. And I’m currently tinkering with a project that may be too personal to share, which attempts to deal with grief by gradually building bonds with other characters. This won’t be very meaningful unless a character can die, triggering the mechanical meat of this idea. These two paths are certainly part of a deliberate design process though I can only claim certainty because they are my designs.

And if a game does not allow for the death of a character unless (or sometimes even if) the player assents, what was that designer thinking?

The designer may well be acknowledging that for a lot of players losing a character they have invested in (mechanically, emotionally) is not fun and that it’s not necessary for the game to operate — that in fact there are plenty of ways to fail that are punitive (either mechanically or narratively) and that therefore punish/reward choices without having character death on the table. One approach is to make death optional — they player may decide. And therefore if the narrative is well served by the death and the player is okay with it, then there is a death. But otherwise no.

Other games avoid death just because it’s not interesting in the context of the design: perhaps the purpose of the game is to explore revolutionary behaviour and to acknowledge that the “loss” of a character in such a situation is actually to lose them to The Man. To betray their revolution (Robert Bohl’s Misspent Youth, obviously). There are worse things than death.

A stone-soup game that kills characters arbitrarily seems just as defective to me as a stone-soup game that denies character death. I need to understand what it’s for. It’s a choice — why’d you make it? If you just copied what came before, then who cares.

What confuses me about these arguments is that they tend to devolve into “I prefer this choice and you are confused about what makes games fun if you disagree”. That last part is rarely said out loud and may not even be intended, but it’s always the message that’s delivered even if only by tone. It confuses me because there are so many great games and many — even most — make different choices. And they generally do so in order to further the deliberate, intentional arc of game play. It’s there for a reason. So this extreme position (I only like one of these things) admits to only one game, and that’s weird as hell. Who on earth would play only one game forever? And if they did, why on earth would they bother with an opinion about alternative ways to play games? They already have their thing. Many people seem to enjoy drawing a very tight boundary around “what they like”.

This makes no sense to me. It’s like only playing Monopoly or licensed variations on Monopoly which is fine but if that was your board game world you’d surely not be interested enough in other games to bother commenting on them.

But worse, it smells to me very similar to the ancient Mac vs PC wars which were never about what a machine actually does (they all do pretty much the same things) and entirely about defending ones investment: I put all this time and money into understanding and optimising this one choice I made and I absolutely do not want to hear about alternatives. Especially if it implies that I made an error in my investment choices.

Playing a lot of games defuses this investment defensiveness. Playing few games amplifies the investment. Stepping back from an emotional response and just thinking, honestly, about games and the very broad range of what they might also defuse. So if you feel fighty about this topic I’d like to ask you to ponder honestly why. And don’t tell me about it. It’s your business and I don’t really give a fuck.