Monday, March 19, 2012

The Death of a Player Character [Re-Post]

I am re-posting this article from my other blog. I posted the article there in April 2009 and got no response to it. Perhaps this is because, at the time, most of my readers had little or no experience with RPGs. Now that my audience is a bit different, and I have this entire blog devoted to gaming, I thought I would give it another go here. I've only made a few slight edits to the original article. The ideas presented are basically the same.

It has only happened rarely in any of the games I’ve played in or run, but most roleplaying game systems do provide for the possibility that a player’s character (PC) might die. Many games give characters hit points to measure their staying power in battle, and when those hit points are depleted they might die. Some games measure the number, and severity, of wounds a character receives, with too many wounds resulting in death. Other games have other systems for injury and character death.

Some games, however, make PC death all but impossible. Often times, even when the system provides rules for character death, there is an understanding among the players and the GM that the GM will not “let” the PCs die. The reason for this is that players spend time creating a character and then developing that character in play. They become invested in their character through this process and don’t want to see them die. Taking this into consideration, it might seem reasonable that the death of a PC should be off limits. However, is anything lost by disallowing player character death?

Imagine your PC facing down the greatest foe they’ve ever encountered. The thrill of danger raises the hair on the back of your neck. The treat of death gets the adrenaline pumping through your veins. Then, you remember that there is really no danger at all. The GM won’t possible let your PC die. Defeat will mean, at worst, a temporary setback. The moment is lost. What should be an epic contest of will, cunning and might becomes a mundane exercise in rolling dice and comparing numbers. Success is only a matter of time. Even if you fail this confrontation, you know that your character will live to fight another day.

So, how could you maintain the thrill of risking PC death, without frustrating players who have become invested in their characters? Here are a couple of options:

Players Choose When to Risk Death: In the game Dogs in the Vineyard, the system allows for PC death, but the players choose when the stakes warrant the risk of death. Players always have the option to back down from any conflict as soon as they decide that the issue isn’t worth risking their PC’s life. This means that the risk of death is very real when the players decide to give a conflict their all, and they’re up against suitable opposition. But if the players, or their characters, don’t really care about the issues at hand they’re never forced to take that risk. This means that if a PC dies, at least it will be over a matter that their player deemed worthwhile.

Quick Character Creation: Some games have a very simple process for creating PCs. This means that if your PC dies, it’s only a matter of minutes to create the game stats for a new one. This takes some of the bite out of PC death. Of course, it might take longer than a few minutes for players who really want an intricate back story for their character. One drawback to this approach is that it tends to encourage cardboard cutout characters. Players spend less time developing their characters in the initial process and don’t become as invested in their stories.

Multiple Characters for Each Player: At the beginning of the game, each player could create two or three characters. They might play one primarily, with any others having only minor supporting roles in the story. However, if their primary character should die, they already have another waiting to step up and take their place. This is a character they’ve already invested some time in, and has already had some minor involvement in the story. By spreading your investment into multiple characters, the loss of one of them seems like less of a tragedy, but it does require more effort up front to develop multiple characters.

What do you think about PC death? Should PCs have to face the threat of death, or should they be immune except at the choice of their player? If PCs do risk death, what would be a good way to mitigate some of the pain of losing your character?


  1. I like games where the rules of the game allow for PC death and where those rules are followed because like you said it kinda takes away from the drama and the excitement of a situation if you know there's NO way your character could possibly die.

    For me at least, I love the actual character creation process even if its long and involved. And once I've played the game a while I might even be better at creating a character the second time around so I don't really fear death for my character.

    I'm curious how things will play out in our current game now that my cousin is out of Force points. I'm worried as my character and slightly as myself, but mostly as a player I'm excited by the element it adds to future conflicts!

    Role playing is one of those game types where it's largely a cooperative effort. However, balanced with that I think, should always be the individual player's autonomy to act, especially if it'll advance or add interest to the over-all story, and even if that means letting your character die.

    1. One thing I overlooked in my post was that different games usually have different rules for handling PC death depending on the specific tone that the game is trying to create. The Star Wars RPG is pretty forgiving in how it allows you to save yourself with a Force Point. Some games are a lot more harsh, and some games - Fairy's Tale comes to mind - make character death impossible.

    2. See, one of the things I like about RPG's are the lengths they go to, to find a way to make the mechanics of the game emulate real life (with the exception of all the super things/powers you can do obviously lol) and that includes the threat of your character possibly dying. I don't care much for games that take that away all together.