Angela Murray had a neat little piece on Gnome Stew that I thought was a good starting point for an examination of death in an RPG, and how appropriate it might be due to expectations of conventions of genre. She only dips her toe into the matter, but I it raised some interest questions for me.

Character death is always a bit of a hot topic among gamers. While it’s not quite as common today as it was back in the days of yore, the issue can still bring out vehement opinions on both sides of the argument. One school of thought pushes for ‘realistic’ outcomes to dangerous choices and doesn’t flinch at the idea of a dead character when the roll of the dice turns against the player. Conversely, many modern games emphasize the idea that character death is a rare thing and should never be taken lightly.

Thinking on it, as a game master I like to avoid killing off characters when it isn’t cinematically or plot appropriate. (A point she brings up regarding Boromir’s death in The Fellowship of the Ring.) As a player, I’ve strangely been less worried about that — maybe because having been stuck with the GMing role for most of my 30 years playing, I’m used to having to off favorite NPCs when needed.

One of the mechanical points I dislike about FATE, for instance, is the use of stress over an “injury” rating for combat. I think stress could be wholly appropriate in, say, a superhero game like Marvel Heroic, where the players can take mental or social or spiritual injury that is not immediately life threatening. Even stress for minor injury seems a nice mechanic…but it just didn’t tend to have that level of finality that combat — to me — should have.

On the flip side, Dungeons & Dragons, with the armor class and hit point system that allows a guy to get hit with swords for half the afternoon also didn’t work for me. While there’s a nice quantitative method of measuring damage, the realism is so obviously non-existent as to pull me out of the experience.

I always rather liked James Bond: 007‘s approach, with light, medium, heavy damage, followed by incapacitation and killed. You could use hero points to “get out of death”, holding the reaper off until it was cinematically appropriate, or succeeding where a bad die roll might scotch a great plotline.

There’s where I think I break with the modern idea that death should be rare — your characters are typically involved in hazardous adventuring. Death should be a real, present danger, but unless you are a favorite second-string character in a Joss Wheedon story, death shouldn’t just pop up and punch a big wooden spike through your chest. Or as Murray explained,

…in recent years I have had characters die in games where I didn’t have a problem with it… I never had an issue with losing a character in a horror game like Dread, or even a full-bore military-esque Shadowrun game. Eventually it struck me that my problem with character death has more to do with the genre of the game than it has to do with actually losing the character. Nobody likes losing a character, but when it fit with the story, I was okay with it.

It’s the conventions of story-telling or genre vs. the simulation/wargaming approach of gaming. Her mention of horror games is very apropos here: the horror genre has certain conventions. You’re going to lose folks, and probably messily — even if you don’t split up to cover more ground, walk backward into the monster a dark room, decide to take a shower or strip down to your underwear in the middle of events, or have a high melanin count in your skin that requires the others to elect you to go out “and see what that was.” Horror=death, or in Lovecraftian games, insanity at the very least.

For those who don’t like our characters drawing on rubber walls with out feces, or having our head ripped off after we go nuts and lose our crap…well, maybe horror is a genre to steer clear of. (Also doing horror well at the gaming table is hard I find…)

What about a military game (which Shadowrun is not…)? Say Twilight:2000 or Battlestar Galactica — life should be cheap unless you are in a story with an overarching metaplot like BSG and are playing a main character important to the plot. The post-apocalyptic genre where “life is cheap” (more the Twilight:2000 end of things) however, might be good to play troupe style, with multiple characters per player. (This is how I run Battlestar Galactica due to high attrition. Marine or Viper pilot..? Unless you are an angel or have a destiny or something…you might want to have another character in the offing.) A Western is another good example. Everyone but the lead is pretty much open season, if we’re running a spaghetti Western, and even the lead in a modern deconstructionist piece like Unforgiven.

Spy games tend to have a lone or small group of folks fighting the bad guys. It’s spy-fi like 24, or James Bond or MI5, not espionage fiction like LeCarre (which would make for a dreadful full game) or The Sandbaggers. The characters are supposed to get tashed up, hurt, have setbacks, but ultimately you stop the master plot, get the bad guy in a big raid of their volcano base, or (unless it is that unfortunate string of ’90s movies) you stop the bomb. Maybe you get killed, but it’s at an appropriate time. “Aren’t you dead yet?” “Almost, Starchild…”

In a sci-fi universe like Star Wars, however, heroes should do very well. Fate, for instance, is an excellent system for Star Trek or Star Wars precisely because the convention of that setting is heroes don’t die…they get beat up, the might lose a hand, they might have cheated or tricked their way out of death, but unless the actor thinks they’ve got a shot at a movie career, they’ll be there next week. Random character death here is not appropriate to the genre. That’s why you knew Groot was going to be okay. It’s why Lando was going to get Millennium Falcon out of the exploding Death Star, and why fire and explosions only travel linearly and as fast as the hero can run/drive/fly. It’s the in joke that must be told, even though we all know it’s crap.

It was interesting she brought up Doctor Who — the main companions always do alright. They don’t die. They might get abandoned here or there, left in an alternate reality, retire to Sussex; they don’t die. The Doctor dies(ish.) And everybody else around them — especially since the Eccleston run — have a good chance of corking it…but the companion? Nope. Their challenge is coping with all the horrible stuff that happens around them.

So how does this all fit into your game campaign? Hopefully, the players have talked about what they expect from the new campaign, and everyone has bought it on the conventions — is it grand space opera? We know what we should be getting? Is it a post-apocalyptic cars-and-deserts game? We know we might bite it. Horror — have a backup character?

Knowing the conventions of the setting you chose is important not just to setting expectations, but will help with the mechanics you use. (No, GURPS is not the only game you’ll ever need…) Fate is great for those settings where the challenge is overcoming rarely-fatal obstacles (superheroes, Star Trek/Wars, . Cortex and Ubiquity are a nice middle ground systems that have death built in, but also mechanics for avoiding death (until appropriate.) Dungeons & Dragons or d20 — at least at lower levels, is a great game for “oops! You died” games.

Match the system to the setting, and the play style to the expectations, and you’re halfway to an enjoyable game or campaign.