‘Til Death Do Us Part: The Tenets of Death

At long last: the fifth and final segment of our ‘Til Death Do Us Part series.  We’ve brooded over the idea of character death for days and this is where we pull all of it together.  As promised, I’ve got two simple guidelines for handling the death of a character in a satisfactory way.

First Axiom: Players Should Get to Choose When Their Characters Die

Yes, we’re starting off by stealing the power of death from the mechanics and giving it to the players.  Crazy, yes.  Too extreme?  Maybe not.

Right now, in many games, the mechanics make this decision for the players and without any direct input.  By the rules, your character is alive or they aren’t – it’s a binary situation.  There’s a line somewhere that, if you cross it, determines that your character is beyond hope.  They are dead.  Dead, dead, dead.

The game system doesn’t know the characters and it doesn’t know the players.  The rules have no knowledge of what’s happened in the story so far.  Why would we let them decide the appropriate time for a death to occur?  Instead, we should turn to the person that knows the character best: their player.  Only they can know if the time is right.  At any time, the player should still be able to say, “I’d like to continue playing my character.  I am prepared to accept the consequences.”  It’s ok to look to the rules, to disclaim personal responsibility, when making this choice.  But ultimately, the decision to rely on the mechanics or not should come from the player.

Likewise, it’s not the GM that decides when a character dies.  We all play the game together and it doesn’t work without input from all of us.  The other day, I found a great quote from Colin Stricklin, writer for The Handbook of Heroes (Warning: hilarious), that expresses this beautifully:

I’m running on the theory that tabletop role-playing games are an act of collaborative storytelling.  Sure the guy at the head of the table has the lion’s share of narrative control, but the lowly players ought to have some input as well, especially where their characters are concerned.  Players, after all, are the people you as a GM are trying to entertain.  If their entire experience of the game world is bound up in the trials and tribulations of a single character, why in the world would you unilaterally decide that character is no longer a part of the story?

That character is the player’s only method of interacting with the game world, of expressing themselves in the story.  Killing them off is the same as telling the player that they can’t participate with the group any longer.  That power shouldn’t belong to a single person.

Lastly, it’s about player agency.  It’s important for a player to be able to decide what their character does and have those actions be meaningful within the context of the game.  Railroading is bad, right?  No one likes it when the GM says, “I don’t care what you want to do, your input doesn’t matter.  The game is happening over here and that’s where you’re going to go if you want to play.”  Death is worse than railroading.  Being dead usurps player agency before the player can even attempt to make a decision.  In contrast, if the player can choose the fate of their own character, what could be more empowering than that?

Second Axiom: Death Should Be Meaningful

When death happens (and it will), make it matter.  This is true for both player characters and non-player characters.  The events that occur in fiction happen for reasons beyond ‘that’s what would happen in real life’.  They are never random or arbitrary – every move is a calculated part of the narrative.  Death is one of the strongest narrative tools available to us.  Applying it liberally and without thought cheapens the impact.

Think about moments in media when characters, especially protagonists, die.  It usually means something.  Heroic last stands, altruistic sacrifice, risking it all for an ideal, tragic downfall.  Oftentimes, it happens as part of the conclusion of the story or character arc.  In any case, that moment ends up being one of the most memorable, one that sticks with us.  The main characters (typically) don’t die half an hour into the movie.  In the same way, if one of our character is going to die then they deserve the same kind of treatment.  Following from our first principle, if the player desires a death with purpose as a conclusion to their character’s story, help them reach that goal.  If they would prefer to end their tales as a living victorious hero, don’t take that away from them.

With secondary cast and NPCs, don’t just off them left and right.  First, do that too much and all of your players will create edgelord orphans with no social attachments.  Killing off NPCs as soon as the players start to get close to them actively discourages deep interactions.  If people die as soon as you learn their names, you’ll learn quickly not to introduce yourself at all.

Second, if you’re trying to portray a realistic world, then you should treat your NPCs like they are real as well.  I know it sounds strange to empathize with imaginary people, but if they did exist they would have lives, feelings, wants, and needs just like we do.  It’s getting into that mindset that moves an NPC from just another shopkeeper to a character that matters to everyone.  I subscribe to the mantra that if a character is important then they should have a name, and if a character has a name then they are important.  As bad as I am with coming up with them, I name every character that interacts with my players.

One Last Breath

So there they are, two tenets to live by – or die by, as the case may be.  I don’t have any concrete steps to implement these suggestions in every game.  That’s up to you to decide and it depends heavily on each specific group and the system that you’re using.  I can’t say, “Well, in system X, if a character dies then here’s what you should do.”  These principles exist above and beyond the in-game rules, at the meta level.  They are part of the social agreement between players.

If you have played any story games then these might feel familiar.  Almost every story game includes the first principle, at least in some form.  In many cases, it’s very explicit, along the lines of “Role-play what your character does and thinks. If someone tries to do something to your character, you describe the outcome.”  That line is straight out of the rules of Microscope.  That says, plain as day, that no one can kill your character without your permission.  The second may not be stated as clearly, but oftentimes it is heavily implied by the nature of those types of games.  Story games to focus on themes, characters, and the narrative.  By definition anything that happens in a scene should be meaningful, including character deaths.

I don’t think it would hurt if traditional tabletop RPGs took some cues from story games.  Personally, I would love to see more games that include player-driven options for death alternatives.  I don’t know if that day will come any time soon, or ever.  Either way, I’ll continue to include these principles in my games – you can count on that.