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Opinion: Character Death

For some reason this take is controversial. I’m not going to say that my opinion is absolutely right, and everyone else is wrong, because it’s clearly a style-of-play preference. I just don’t like random character death, for any reason, under any circumstances, period. Therefore, I made design decisions in my own designs to reflect my stance on the issue.

I don’t think random character death, i.e. as a result of some bad rolls your character is now out of the story, is fair. It’s not fair to the player, who invested time in creating and playing the character. They now have to sit out the rest of the session, or go off and make a new character on the fly while everyone else keeps playing. I know, some people have backup characters at the ready. That tells me that you expect your character is going to die. It’s almost as if those systems encourage you to not become too attached to your characters.

It’s not fair to the gamemaster, either. They created an adventure for a certain number of characters. A lot of time and energy has been spent discussing “game balance”, and carefully crafting encounters, so that things are “fair”. What’s the point, though, if said balance gets chucked right out the window because characters randomly die? Now the GM either needs to tweak things for fewer characters and missing abilities, or allow the downward spiral to take hold. This often ends in a total party kill, which is somehow still a thing and some people find to be fun.

The gamemaster also has to deal with introducing a new character in the middle of an adventure. I have witnessed some ham-fisted insertions in my day. They make absolutely no sense in the context of the story, have no regard for any background the player might have thought up, and are all about getting the numbers back up for tactical purposes. Which is fine. It’s just not my preferred style of play.

Deciding What Matters

I’ve heard opinions about what character death is important and essential. What incentive will players have for learning to be better players? Why will they be driven to learn the rules and make better decisions? That one makes as much sense as asking what incentive waitstaff in restaurants would have to provide good service if they didn’t rely on tips. I don’t know, what incentivizes people in non-tipping jobs? It also implies that the point of the game is to not die, as opposed to doing literally anything else.

Another common opinion I’ve heard is that if death isn’t an option, nothing in the game matters. How can I break this one gently… it’s a game. A work of collaborative fiction. None of it matters. It’s a form of entertainment. If random character death is an option, do the player’s feelings matter? Does the time and creativity they’ve investing in developing the character matter?

Opposing Character Death

There are ways to address these points besides character death. There can still be fallout for both bad rolls and bad decisions, in the form of complications. Personally, I think this is better than death. The character has to deal with the consequences of their actions, and the player is still able to do that. These can be lingering effects that follow the character around for a while. It can build character, create tension, and make the game more interesting.

If a death occurs, it should make sense within the context of the story. The player should have say. Not being able to come up with alternatives is a failure of imagination, as far as I’m concerned. We can do better. I’ve tried to do better in my own game design. But this is an issue that matters to me, so it became a problem I was solving for.

About Dancing Lights Press

Dancing Lights Press publishes creative aids and story games that embrace a minimalist aesthetic in design and presentation. The spotlight belongs on the creativity of the players as they converse and collaborate on plot, worldbuilding, and character development. Roleplaying is an activity, not a book. Our titles are merely part of the delivery system.