2005-03-10 : Character Death


Let's talk about Character Death! Task and Conflict resolution!

Okay, here let's talk about character death. Everybody remember that we're talking about collaborative thematic play; character death in competitive play means something totally different.

Otherwise all I've got new is this unordered list:

  • Sometimes characters die, in every medium featuring characters. That's appropriate and roleplaying should be no different.
  • In fact, sometimes a sudden, unexpected and irrevocable character death is just what's called for, isn't it?
  • If your character's death puts you out of the game in the real world, character death should require your buy-in for certain. Otherwise it's a violation of your ability to collaborate.
  • If your character's death doesn't put you out of the game, that's a whole different matter. If you can still collaborate on the game even with a dead character, losing your character involuntarily doesn't have to be a game-breaker. Think of that!

So, how about you, Luke? What've you got? Anybody else?

1. On 2005-03-10, Vincent said:

Oh and I meant to say - this question matters to me a lot just now. Red Sky A.M. absolutely must deal effectively with PC death. PC dismemberment and crippling and psychological destruction, too.


2. On 2005-03-10, ScottM said:

I firmly agree with your point three: if character death punts you from the game, you should have to agree for it to happen. Or have some easy work around—take over characters, Universalis style—the stuff you mention in point four.

Dying in a way that vindicates your character is much better than dying randomly.  If your concept is "best brawler around" then it's much worse to die in a street brawl than in a way that emphasizes that you're unbeatable in a brawl—undermining your concept AND killing you all together is cruel.


3. On 2005-03-10, Matt Wilson said:

Seems like you could tie in character death with new player privileges. So you lose all the authorship that you normally associate with playing a character, but you gain new directorial powers.

How about this: when your character dies (in this hypothetical game) you get a handful of dice, and you can spend them to help other players whenever their characters are doing something related to your character's death. You have something to do, and your guy's death has a continuing effect on the story.

Say the game is a Firefly game, and Zoe is killed (aww), so Zoe's player gets 5d10 of "mourning dice," and whenever Zoe is brought up related to a conflict, Zoe's player can apply a d10 in some way. Once the dice are spent, everyone's done mourning, and the player can make a new character.


4. On 2005-03-10, Thor Olavsrud said:

Luke and I sat down over lunch and had a long talk about this last week.

The question was: given your [Vincent's] statement that PCs only get to die to make a final statement, how does that jibe with a character that dies pursuing another character's goal? For instance, your character wants to kill the duke and asks my character to come along. Then my character gets killed in the process.

Now, clearly, this is only going to come up in a "traditional, party-play" situation.

My response was that character motivations don't matter. Characters don't exist! Only player motivations matter. Assuming functional play, I'm going to get my character involved in that scenario because something going on in it is interesting to me, the player. And so, by getting my character involved, you create a reason for that character to care about the conflict at hand.

At that point, the player knows the stakes (trying to kill the duke could lead to death or imprisonment), and has a reason to get involved. The player cared enough about the conflict that he was willing to risk his character's life to tackle it. If the character dies, he has made a statement about that conflict.

Is this the sort of thing you were getting at Vincent, or am I way off base?


5. On 2005-03-10, Thor Olavsrud said:

Oh! And as far as Red Sky A.M. goes, it seems that the death of a character at the front would immediately zoom the camera focus in on that character's family back home. Funeral, war hero, all that sort of stuff!


6. On 2005-03-10, Ninja Hunter J said:

Yes, Matt, and more. You have to be able to continually effect the story. Now, I like the idea of having a walkdown period after a character dies, but the player doesn't have much to do in your example.

Now, let's say that, when you die, you have a finite number of widgets to use that represent the effects you've had on the world. This isn't just 'Zoe would have talked one guy down here and shot the other'. It's that play veers toward Zoe's effects in the world. You essentially have a story devoted to what Zoe did in her life: rivals show up to settle their hash, or it turns out she had a big secret that comes knocking, or Wash goes apeshit, or what-have-you.

In Mountain Witch, you still have a direct effect on the course of the game when you die. You just have to act by supporting other characters with your dice.

(I'm taking this as notes for my current project, by the way. Character death has to matter a lot, and this might be a way to do it. )


7. On 2005-03-10, Emily Care said:

A major issue with character death is that normally a) players only have one character and b)the only way that players contribute substantially is via their character.  Change either of those things, as the suggestions already given do, and you've got a way different dynamic. Like Ben said recently, he didn't even have a character when we played Primetime Adventures with him, and he felt like he contributed more

than in trad games he'd played.

Other thoughts:
If you're fielding 10+ characters, for example, you might be much more vested in killing one/some off for a purpose. Makes me think of the movie Troy:  the myrmidons were clearly all XP for Achilles: they got peeled off one by one while he stayed alive.  The ones that mattered died to forward his story thematically.

How death is handled matters. Just cause the character stops being corporal doesn't mean it loses effect. (eg jedi, ghosts etc) Natch flashbacks.

Oh, and I just played Werewolf last night. Talk about character death! It's not rpg, of course, and game is quick so you get to take your turn killing and being killed, but what I noticed was that it was kind of fun being dead. You slip into audience mode 'cause you get to see the secret werewolf et al business. But if the hands were longer, it'd probably be a drag.

Final thought, when your character dies that puts you in a unique position: you lose some of that conflict of interest Thor talked about. You could be free to do more protagonizing etc.


8. On 2005-03-10, xenopulse said:

You guys know by now that my main focus for many years has been GM-less freeform playing, with total character ownership (I get to decide about anything that happens to my character, so no death or even scratch without me introducing it into the SIS). That actually made for a good lab experience, because you can see under what circumstances people let their characters die.

For most people, it's never. They get too attached. I think this makes them potentially miss out on some intense play, but then again, a lot of people play for the social interaction, so they settle in their Comfort Zone. They don't want to lose their play input and player connections. Others let their characters die very often, but get resurrected right after, therefore making the death near meaningless.

For those of us who are really into intense stories and can handle starting over, however, it turns out that Vincent's assessment in the Hardcore thread (I think) was quite on point. I killed a close friend of mine's long-standing character (2 years of almost daily play) at the climax of a story. Similarly, two of my characters were killed in highly dramatic situations (one actually took his life as he was about to be overwhelmed by the enemy, in good old Aliens fashion). But when random idiots attack me, there's no way I'll let my character die just for their satisfaction, even if it would be "realistic" or plausible according to the events. It has to MEAN something, make a big impact, or—as you said—be a final statement.

I can therefore from my own experience only reinforce the two main points:

a) People don't want to be left out through character death (but in a freeform environment, there's little to no input without a character).
b) The death needs to be thematically meaningful to be satisfying. This includes death not being easily undone.

- Christian


9. On 2005-03-10, timfire said:

My game was sorta already mentioned, but I thought I would elaborate. In the Mountain Witch, I did alot of what people have suggested. The default for being "Taken Out" isn't death. If the GM (or another player) intends to kill a PC, they must announce it upfront, giving the player the choice of engaging the conflict or not.

Also, after character death, players can still influence the story via Trust. In fact, the influence of Trust is even stronger for dead PC's, as dead PC's can Aid, Betray, etc. in ways a living PC can't.

In regard to Red Sky AM, I wonder if random character death might actually be *appropriate*. That happens in War, doesn't it? Having a family member in the military during a time of conflict means an ever-present fear that you might get "the phone call".


10. On 2005-03-10, Vincent said:

Tim, you know it.

I've been watching Band of Brothers again. I talked about this with Luke a little bit already. There's a feeling you get, watching Band of Brothers, about the main characters. They're the main characters because they survive, you feel, not they survive because they're the main characters. It's not like they have script immunity. Maybe it's just because you don't know - any of the main characters might be one who doesn't live through it after all.

Band of Brothers also plays another trick. When it's a character's episode, you can be sure that either he's going to live or his death will mean something. But next episode, the episode after, the episode after - he's just another guy. He can die for nothing, part of the carnage surrounding the current main characters. That's a pretty emotionally compelling trick; I don't think that I can adapt it to Red Sky A.M. though.

In Red Sky A.M. right now, named but non-PC marines can just die, while PC marines are subject to life-threatening injury at either the player's or the GM's hands, and then you roll to see. If your PC marine dies, you take a non-PC named marine to be your new PC.

The game starts with a squad of twelve named marines, including the starting PCs. They die or go home wounded and are replaced over time, of course - and the game ends when the last of the original twelve is gone.


11. On 2005-03-10, Olman Feelyus said:

This is a very interesting discussion (and a very interesting blog).

Perhaps a greater emphasis in the game structure on setting and situation may bring down the player's attachment to their characters, making death an acceptable (and enjoyable) part of the game.  So the player who died gets to return immediately as a different character (who may or may not have already existed as an NPC in the situation), but one who is still connected to the events.  The character experiences them from a significantly different perspective, while the player still has all the meta-knowledge from his previous character.  Those elements could interact in a way that would bring out the next chapter in the story in a rich and interesting way.

For example, the setting is some sort of courtly intrigue.  You play the prince whose elderly father is slowly losing his grip on the kingdom.  There is a plan to murder the king.  You become involved and end up getting killed.  Now you take a new character, maybe the king himself, one of the plotters or the sergeant-at-arms who is supposed to protect the king, etc.  Now the story carries on from your new perspective.

Or, perhaps you play the story back from the beginning, but as this new character and now with your knowledge of what happened before, you change what happened... I don't know, thinking kind of far afield now.  But my main point is that emphasising the growth of the story over the growth of a single character may be a way to address character death.



12. On 2005-03-10, Brennan said:

I'm thinking about the random death thing, you know, being overwhelmed by a group of thugs, or taking an accidental blade to the gut. I think this form of character death, while seeming meaningless, actually has a purpose. The point being made by deaths like these is that the world is random and harmful. Now, if that's the point you want to make with your play, then this kind of character death makes sense.

The other thing character death does is it sets the stakes. If there is no risk of catastrophic failure, then it isn't as fun. One of my friends, probably one of the greatest role-players I have ever met, takes this position.


13. On 2005-03-10, Meguey said:

Just reading along, and I have to say:
"The game starts with a squad of twelve named marines, including the starting PCs. They die or go home wounded and are replaced over time, of course - and the game ends when the last of the original twelve is gone."
made me say "Ack! Cool!" I was just talking to Emily about how cool it is to have games with finite scope/sessions.


14. On 2005-03-10, Eric said:

Hear, hear, Meg.  I am reminded of an interview with Neil Gaiman about how he needed to bring the Sandman to a close.  He says there was an initial incident - the imprisonment and loss of Morpheus' "stuff" - and when that, plus its attendant ramifications, was done... so was the series.

Vincent, personally I kind of like the Band of Brothers trick with mortality being (in essence) inversely proportional to spotlight.  Make all twelve Marines as PCs, play troupe-style to swap some in and out; encourage changeover between stories.  And then explicitly have two kinds of death; NPC-marine deaths (which serve to illuminate the brutality of it) and PC-marine deaths (which fit your diagnosis in the head post here).  I'm envisioning a system where the primary advancement engine for an "onscreen" Marine is to have an "offscreen" Marine who you have played die a secondary-character's death.  This gives you the resource juju to use the current one at his full value... including making him worth more points for if he bites it later.  Make this your choice, not others'.

Mind you that might work as well with "onscreen death" substituted where you see "offscreen death" in the idea.  It's just teasing at me right now.

I think it has to do with the players, as a group, being able to treat the original twelve as a nonreplenishable resource, one which is somehow necessary for peak performance (like Trust in tMW).


15. On 2005-03-10, Vincent said:


Like I say, I don't think I can make it work, because of the surrounding structure already in place.

But it'd be nice, wouldn't it?

Oh wait, I know how. Never mind. You'll find out. Thanks, Eric!


16. On 2005-03-10, JasonN said:

I'm gunna work my way to a point and question.

To start with, I like it when games make participants out of audience.  These are social events, right?  "Wanna play?  Cool, we'll figure it out.  Sit down, have a beer."

Sometimes, when we say 'audience' we mean 'players whose characters are not in the scene right now'.  Sometimes, we mean people who are sitting in, but aren't full-blown players, as we have the term constructed in our heads.

There was a Forge thread a while ago dealing with PTA, about someone visiting someone else's game, and they let him sit and kibitz—and wish they let him dish out Fan Mail, too.  That's the kind of stuff I'm talking about.  You don't need to have a PC to be a participant.  Just look at the GM.

Anyway, in a game where audience (of either type, but in particular the former) is encouraged and empowered to participate, a character's death doesn't really cut them out of the action.  PTA, right?  Comes around to you, and you call your scene, right?  You're still not as actively involved in the action as the players who have characters, but that's because games are *made* that way, today.

I play with a GM who likes to run Call of Cthulhu.  Somtimes he runs one-shots.  Character death happens from time to time, as you may know—especially in one-shots.  So in certain games, when your guy dies, and the scene ends, he calls a break and takes the player in the back room, gives them the secrets, and lets them take over the action of at least one of the bad guys.  If more people die, the number of players working on the bad guy stuff grows, and you look across the table, and you feel like, wow, we're almost outnumbered.  By people who know us.  And now they have all the secrets.

That's kinda cool—but it's not thematic play, as Vincent originally framed the question.  So.

I guess, in Forgese, the question is this: in collaborative thematic play, is it possible to address Premise as audience, that is, as anyone who doesn't have an active character, but is still participating in the game?

If so, character death should still be a big deal, but it's not the participation-killing event it might otherwise be, for the player.


17. On 2005-03-10, luke said:

I'm so copping out of this thread. I need time to think on it, actually. Believe it or not, my views on the matter have substantively changed in the past two weeks!

I recognized that I'm concerned with one thing and one thing only: when and how a player is removed from play.

Having this happen in a random, haphazard fashion does not facilitate the play I designed for in Burning Wheel. It actually just creates problems.

But, like Vincent, I'm currently interested in rpg design that strongly acknowledges character death through violence—where it's a feature of play, not an unlucky incident. So this is very much on my brain. How do you account for a violent, soulless world? Personally, Mr Baker, I think your observations about BoB are spot on, and I think you're copping out thinking you can't replicate or amplify that in a game. Especially a game about emotional attachments.



18. On 2005-03-10, timfire said:

"But, like Vincent, I'm currently interested in rpg design that strongly acknowledges character death through violence—where it's a feature of play, not an unlucky incident."

I think the Mountain Witch does this. It's a classic Blood Opera. I'll have to wait and see after it hits the market, but I believe it'll be a rare game where noone dies. In particular, I believe player v player violence will be extremely common.

But I also wanted to say this—thus far, based on my own personal experience, I think it's easier to deal with the death of a PC in a closed-ended game. For me personally, knowing that there will be an end frees me from worrying that I might "screw things up" by killing my PC.


19. On 2005-03-10, Piers said:

Both Jonathan Walton's Argonauts and an old design of mine did something interesting in the context of this question by tying character death to a Fate or Doom.  What they essentially had was a switch with two states—Doomed to Die, and Sure to Live—and a rachet-like mechanic (easy to move forward, difficult or impossible to move back) that controlled when the character switched from one state to the other.

What's interesting about this is that is breaks out some (but by no means all) of the questions that ball up around the issue of character death and allows you to address them separately:

—What's at stake for me when I know that my character is sure to live? (What's as bad as dying?  What am I not afraid of if I can't die?)

—What's at stake for me when I know my character is going to die? (What will I do to make my death meaningful?  How will I act if I know my death has no meaning?)


—What's at stake around moving between these states of knowledge?  (How sure do have to be that I can't die?  What am I willing to risk death for?  What will I do to escape death?)


20. On 2005-03-11, Ben Lehman said:

Character death...

I keep talking about Polaris, but it's really what's on my mind these days.

See, one of the things I've always found frustrating about RPGs is how much people are afraid of death.  No one will do anything daring or dashing or foolish or heroic because they are worried that they are going to die.

The common solution to this, common because it is a good one, is to assure players that daring or dashing or foolish or heroic things will not get their characters killed.  And that's all well and good, and it works, but it doesn't really fix the problem.

In a novel, in a movie—death is cool.  It is just an awesome moment.  Putting death off in moments where characters act like protagonists is a good way to get characters to act like protagonists, but it isn't a good way to get the cool death.

In a novel, a character might get death as the response for acting like a protagonist.  And that isn't bad.  That just makes it even more awesome, really.

Polaris is all about making it okay to lose.  In Polaris, as I keep saying, death is the good ending.  Death means that you were just that awesome.  That you were strong willed enough to stand against evil.  I want Polaris players to want death.  To thirst for it.  To just wait for the moment that they can get it.

We'll see how it goes.



21. On 2005-03-11, luke said:

oh, and if you could answer Thor's questions, I think we might actually be on track for this discussions, rather than wanking about our cool games.

I'm not going to repeat 'em here. you can scroll back up and read his post for yourself.



22. On 2005-03-11, Eric said:

Was trying to come up with a good way to address that.  I guess to me it's kind of a PTA thing.  Except maybe in Red Sky A.M., possibly, I'm not sure it's possible for a character to die a Good Death while pursuing a story that's not their own.  [Note that this is quite distinct from pursuing another character's goals, as Thor points out.]  If there's something going on that is MORE important to the players than the appropriate death of a PC, then holy shit you have the intensity turned up to six thousand volts, and I want to be in your game.

Mostly, that's not gonna happen.  So the apt death of a character should always be the most important thing happening, which means that even if it was someone else's story before, you'd better hijack it first to focus on the sacrifice, before you bring down the knife.  Any PC must, as a precondition to a good death, have a PTA screen presence of 3+ on a scale of three.

Does that address what you were gunning for, Thor?


23. On 2005-03-11, Charles said:

But I also wanted to say this—thus far, based on my own personal experience, I think it's easier to deal with the death of a PC in a closed-ended game. For me personally, knowing that there will be an end frees me from worrying that I might "screw things up" by killing my PC.

I so totally agree with this. Character death in a short run game can easily say something as interesting as the character could say by staying alive and being able to do more stuff. Character death in an on-going campaign means the end of something that is likely to have been built up into an incredibly subtle and powerful tool for saying things.

While such things are surely useful in short run games, it seems to me that long run games actually have even more of a need for some method of valorizing choosing the option of character death. Christian mentioned the tendency of most players (if they are given complete control over whether their character has script immunity (is that common parlance?) to never make their characters die, and that that deprives them of the intense experience that can come from having a character die. It seems to me that methods that ensure that the game gives a lot of focus to characters who die might help to convince players that character death is worth experimenting with.


24. On 2005-03-11, Vincent said:

Well, it seems that we all crave death and we're all not sure how to get it. Many of us are designing games about it right now! That means that in a year when we revisit the question, we'll have lots more concrete rules and play to talk about.

As Luke wishes, though! Thor: "Is this the sort of thing you were getting at Vincent, or am I way off base?"

You're way ON base.

Here's a Band of Brothers example. What makes a good leader? A whole bunch of PCs die or are maimed to answer that question. From their point of view, they weren't trying to answer the question at all, they were trying to survive shelling in Alsace. It's from our point of view as the audience, looking at the episode (and series) as a whole - as players, looking at the game as a whole - that we even see the question and the answer.


25. On 2005-03-13, Sydney Freedberg said:

It's weird when your hobby and your work converge like this. I'm a defense reporter, I was lead writer on our magazine's Memorial Day package last year about war deaths, half my sources were in Vietnam, and my former boss and favorite journalist ever, Michael Kelly, was killed while embedded in Iraq. (Oh yeah, and my father died in my arms, but that was end-stage renal failure after years of decline, so not really germane. Oh, and I'm a Christian, so I'm pretty sure God got killed too). Michael left behind two kids under 10 and a wife, too, so that's pretty on-target for Red Sky A.M., even though he was a civilian.
So. Death.
After we heard that Michael Kelly had died, most of the staff at the magazine went out for a drink together. Somebody started saying, well, he died doing what he believed in, and what he loved, and so on, and so forth. And I said: Wait. No. This was random. This was a stupid accident—his Humvee took enemy fire outside Baghdad Airport and crashed into a canal. Michael's death was meaningless. But his life, his life, that was meaningful.
Dickens' Tale of Two Cities and a hundred other fictional examples aside, it's not how we die that makes our lives mean something. It's how we live that makes our death mean something.
Sure, you can go with Dickens and say, this is fiction, you only get to die if you want to make a statement. I'm not sure that's it, though. I think the real power comes from telling people, "You want to do this? Okay. Understand you can die at any time. For nothing. For reason, not even a stupid one. Now—in face of that—what do you do?"
THAT, my friends, is meaning. I want to play that game.
- Sydney Freedberg


26. On 2005-03-13, anon. said:

But the person you've really got to listen to isn't me, it's Tim O'Brien, who wrote "The Things They Carried." (
Additional thought: It strikes me that Red Sky A.M., in particular, has a built-in mechanism for struggling with the meaning or meaninglessness of death, because killed characters don't just drop out, you've got not only their squad but also their family to roleplay. Maybe the only statement has to be theirs.


27. On 2005-03-14, luke said:

hi sydney,
love your observations. very poignant.
just wanted to say that you got me thinking.


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