‘Til Death Do Us Part: Death and the Metagame

Well, we’re rapidly coming to the close of the ‘Til Death Do Us Part series.  First, we covered how a few different systems handle the problem of character death.  The last two posts discussed death from both a player perspective and a GM perspective.  So, what’s left?  Obviously, the only way to go is up – above the characters, and the rules, and the table.  I’m talking about exploring the concept from a metagame and game design level.

What’s the Point in Dying?

Here’s the question:  why death?  What is our fascination with quantifying it, with delineating the point where a character stops being a person and starts being a lump of inert matter?  I can see a few different reasons for it, but here are my thoughts on the most obvious ones:

First, emulation.  I’d have to say that in most systems, these rules exist because without them it wouldn’t ‘be like real life’.  Many games try to emulate reality as closely as possible.  It makes sense that if you fall off a cliff, dive into lava, or get stabbed in the heart then you’re in major trouble.  These are generally not healthy activities.  Real world physics dictate that certain actions should result in physical trauma, dismemberment, and death.  Likewise, everyone travels the same path in life – they are born, they grow older, they die.  We already have rules for combat, travel, sleeping, researching, negotiating, and eating.  Death is just another thing on that list.

Closely related to emulation is the idea that our actions should have consequences.  As in, if you do something good, then good things should happen.  Alternatively, if you do something bad, good things don’t happen.  Because of this, sometimes GMs use death as a consequence for players acting in what the GM perceives as stupid ways.  Trying to fight huge, bloodthirsty monsters with nothing more than a sword.  Flying your space ship directly into a sun.  Thinking you can jump a ten foot gap while wearing plate armor.  In seriousness though, consequences are just outcomes of a chosen action.  Cause and effect, if you will.  Our minds demand logical outcomes.  It’s just part of being human.

Another benefit to the specter of death is the element of suspense.  A common question games ask is, “Can our characters succeed at their goals?”  The riskier the task, the more satisfying the victory.  When the possibility of death is brought into play, that question turns into an all-or-nothing gamble.  The resolution of every action turns into a nail-biter.  However, keep in mind that the powerful effect of suspense is lost once the outcome is known.  Death solves that mystery, at least.

And last, but not least, finality.  Once again, it’s human nature to desire a conclusion.  We prefer it when we can follow a story to a satisfying resolution, with all of our questions answered.  So you went and fought a dragon, what happened next?  We all died, the end.  It’s not the happiest outcome, but character death offers an ending.  Sometimes, it is cathartic to bear witness to a character’s final struggles.  After the curtain falls, ideally there’s nothing left to wonder about.

What’s the Point in Dying in a Game?

So, death in games definitely has a place in the narrative and there are reasons that we include it.  But in the context of games, rules about death are specifically rules about not playing.  From a design perspective, it seems strange to me that various systems have rules that allow character death to occur at all, unless that is the express purpose of the game.  Most of the time though, you’ll see a game system go on and on about the importance of characters and player-driven decision making.

If characters are the core of the game, don’t force them to die by the dice.  If story is important, then don’t settle outcomes like life or death arbitrarily.  Not getting to play the game because you’re dead isn’t fun or interesting.  The game exists for the players and the rules support them.  A well designed game is one that is aware of its goals and sticks to them, with focused mechanics to drive play towards that end.

This calls for a shift in how we think about death in games.  Death isn’t just something that happens, it’s a tool that we can use to enrich the story our experiences with the hobby.  So, with that in mind, I have come up with a pair of principles for handling death in role-playing games.  We’ll explore those ideas and what they mean tomorrow in the last of this series – ‘Til Death Do Us Part: The Tenets of Death.