Thursday, June 15, 2017

Death and Dying

I want to talk about what happens when player characters die in a tabletop RPG.

I am of the generation(s) that have grown up with videogames, as are many of those who play tabletop RPGs. Player death is a common occurrence in videogames; you take too much damage, you make a misstep, you are in the wrong place at the wrong time - you die.
And then you resume. Either at the start of the level, or at the last checkpoint, or (very rarely) from the very beginning of the game. But it is rare that more than ten minutes of play time is lost in a death.

Tabletop RPGs are built around some very different assumptions. One of these is the synchronicity of the worlds of the PCs - if a PC dies, he/she is also dead in the worlds of the other PCs. There is no savepoint - the shared story carries on. (Or simply ends there.) This can be a difficult paradigm to adapt to if one is used to the cheap, reversible deaths of (most) videogames.

Different players react differently to the death of their character.
Some, those who engage deeply with the rules and systematics of a game, stoically accept it, so long as the death was fair and by-the-book. They live and die by the rules they agree to play under.
Some, those who engage deeply with the plot and story-making of a game, are content or even delighted for their character to die in a meaningful way at a meaningful moment - in some great struggle or tragic betrayal, say - because of the emotional punch something like a death adds to a story.
Some, those who constantly seek more powerful abilities and items, those who play the game "to win," are devastated or even aggravated by a character death. It represents a loss of invested time, a setback that will take weeks or months or years of play to recoup.

I am not criticizing any of these reactions. I share aspects of all three of them. I merely seek to illustrate that character death is not fun for everyone.

The question then becomes why we play (or create) games that let characters die. Let's talk about that.

There are several reasons that come to mind, but I think most can simply be reduced into one principle: the specter (and even coming) of character death promotes and deepens player engagement.
1) It encourages careful play that engages with the rules.
2) It encourages verisimilitude (players don't risk their characters in situations that the characters wouldn't themselves risk).
3) It provides tension and drama (not unlike that which fuels a casino gambler).
4) It provides moments of emotional depth when a beloved character dies.

I LIKE promoting player engagement.
But I also recognize that many players have a hard time dealing with the death of a character.
So I'll tell you what I do, as a DM, to accommodate both these factors.
1) I provide risks other than death.
Death shouldn't be the only risk a character faces. Wounds, financial loss, curses, mental illness, connections... there are other ways to make a character (and by extension, a player) feel risk. Use those.
2) I make death a real risk.
Cushy systems that give players mountains of hitpoints and myriad failsafes like resurrection spells keep death in their rules to no purpose. There is no point in making character death a possibility if it is unlikely, painless, and reversible. If you're going to have character death be possible in your game, get your mileage out of it. Use it. Make it a threat. Make it painful. It's doing its job.
3) Give the player the final say.
I have a secret. It is not me that determines whether a character lives or dies. It is not even the dice. It is the player.
I currently run a hacked 5E game, wherein a dying player makes one (not three) death save (with the DC determined by the amount of leftover damage after the PC is reduced to zero hitpoints). I tell the player to come roll behind my screen, And I whisper to them that no matter what the dice say, they decide whether their character survives or not. And they roll. And they look me in the eye. And they tell me whether their character is alive or dead. (I got this idea from The Angry GM. This article. It is worth reading on this subject, if you want something longer and more in-depth. And better. XP )
This allows the kind of player whose day would be ruined by a character death to, well, not have their day ruined. But it preserves the bite of death for those who want to go by the hard-and-fast rules. And it allows story-oriented players to decide the life or death of their character based on the implications for the plot.
I have only had two players, so far, put in the position where they're holding their d20 behind my screen, about to decide whether their character lived or died.
Both players rolled a death. I asked them what happens to their character:
Both players told me their character dies.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Cavern

Can we talk about how this sounds exactly like how a megadungeon crawl should feel?