There are few experiences that suck more than losing a character that you enjoyed playing. It might occur in any number of ways, but the outcome is always the same. However, from what I’ve seen character death usually happens for one of two reasons: because the rules say so or because another player does it. Honestly, both are miserable, and often result in the worst memories of a game.
“Aww, Too Bad. Oh Well, Here’s Another Character Sheet!”
In most role-playing games, the character is the sole means that a player has to interact with the story. Most of the time, the rules explicitly state that we are the sole arbiter of our own character’s decisions and thoughts. Characters serve as both our lens into the the world and they act as a vehicle for conveying the our intended actions. On the flip side, that also means that without one we have no way of actually playing the game. If our character dies, we turn from an active participant into a passive observer. The game goes on but we do not.
Sometimes, this means we create a new character. Other times, we hope that something in the game allows us to come back at a later time, to rejoin the luckier players once more. In either case, there is a period of time where we aren’t getting to contribute. When permadeath is involved, any unresolved plot lines involving that character die with them. That definitely disrupts the narrative, big time. You’re left scratching your head, trying to come up with a new character that fits with the established story and a reason for them to join the rest of the players. The GM, on the other hand, has to grab a large chunk of their notes related to your character and toss them into the garbage. So much wasted!
From a design standpoint, it’s pretty easy to say anything that keeps a player in the game is good. Conversely, anything that puts them on the sidelines is bad. I don’t know of anyone that likes to fail, and for many, losing a character feels like the definition of failure in a role-playing game. I’d love to see more games where the players decide their own fates. Don’t give me death, give me consequences! Make my character’s life harder, not pointless!
“My Character Kills Your Character!”
Player-vs-player deaths are another topic that we have to cover, even though I’d be happier if that wasn’t the case. Just getting a string of bad rolls isn’t the only way to be removed from the game. Unfortunately, there are times when players come to a head and intraparty violence ensues. There are definitely tasteful ways to handle character conflict that result in interesting outcomes. However, this is territory where we should be cautious – the conflict should serve the story and the group as a whole, not just one player’s ego. A ‘to the death’ type scenario usually doesn’t do that.
For me, personally, one player attempting to kill another player’s character is crossing a huge red line. I don’t even care if I’m not directly involved. That’s not something I would consider doing myself and I’d expect the same from others in turn. The only exception would be if both parties agreed on character vs. character violence as an act they both wanted to take part in. If there is no mutual agreement, then it’s a great opportunity to take a break from the game and talk about the situation. There’s probably something very wrong with the social dynamic in that case.
You see, when it’s not agreed on, then at that point it is no longer a group activity. Instead, that’s one player saying to the other, “I don’t want you to play any more. I am going to take away your ability to enjoy the game.” As we mentioned above, the thing called a character is our only method of interfacing with the game. Whatever the reason, one player shouldn’t have the ability to obstruct another player’s enjoyment. It doesn’t matter what the rules of the game say, that’s a rule of life. One of the first things we learn as children is to play nice with others. That kind of selfish, one-sided gratification has no place in a social game played for the enjoyment of everyone.
Now, if the point of the game is dog-eat-dog competition and the players are aware of that fact before participating, that’s a whole ‘nother story. Feel free to go to town in that case! I should warn you though, you had better watch out – I don’t pull punches when I’m aiming for the win!