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Taking death off the table

Taking death off the table

I read the article at http://fudgerpg.com/community/fudge-blo … death.html a few weeks ago, and I've finall registered so that I could respond to it.

My general approach toward death in roleplaying games is basically to take it off the table and replace it with non-lethal failure. Basically, except in special circumstances in which a death would have meaning, the characters can't die.

I've gotten a lot of strong reaction when I've suggested this in other venues. For some reason, death has become the primary failure mode in action games, yet unlike other potential failures, it has the potential to bring a roleplaying game to a screeching halt and hurt feelings around the table. Depending on the setting, death may not need to be the end of the game, but it generally is, at least for that character.

The rule of thumb for failure is that it should at least not bring the game to a halt, unless it's the end of the campaign anyway. With a little thought, a way can be found for the game to continue past nearly any failure. Once you stop assuming that death is the only plausible outcome to a situation, you can find many approaches that still result in failure after mistakes are made by players and characters, but which do not stop the game.

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Re: Taking death off the table

I'm honestly not sure why this tends to illicit the opinions it does. It seems like one of many variables that intuitively makes sense to vary by game, where in some games death is very possible, in others it is possible but generally unlikely, in others it is impossible, and in yet others it is so far removed from the context of the game most of the time that the question isn't even relevant. I generally tend towards players choosing whether their characters die, with the exceptions being cases where each player has a lot of characters (troupe play). Even then, it is often unlikely, for the exact reasons stated.

The [-] die.

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Re: Taking death off the table

I think I fall along the lines of "depends on the game".  I believe that certain genres are much better with the potential for character death. But on the flipside, I think some genres would be horrible with the potential for death.  That said, even with games in which character death is a viable option for failure, I don't think it should ever be the only option.  The biggest problem with death as a consequence of failure is its finality.  There's nowhere to go but creating a new character, unless your game has resurrection, which by its nature, tends to nullify character death as an option.  Another factor that seems to play a part in people's feelings about character death is the amount of time required to create characters in the game.  If it only takes five minutes to make a character, then character death isn't really a big deal.  But if it takes a couple of hours to create a character, I don't think many people welcome the idea of losing that character any time soon.

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Re: Taking death off the table

Not only does it depend on the game, but also on the setting. Some settings and styles require death not to be an option. For Heroes of Oz, in a land where death is impossible, I had to account for that (I threw out the damage track, in this case). In a Saturday Morning Cartoon-type game, death doesn't happen, even thought it can, so you need alternatives there (Cartoon Action Hour from Spectrum Games does this well). Of course, that's not necessarily the case for "The Movie" but that's something else.

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Re: Taking death off the table

Not quite related to this thread, but in a Fables game I'll run this summer Death (with a capital D) will be a NPC. And she won't take well being taken off the table xD

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Re: Taking death off the table

BSSGames wrote:

I think I fall along the lines of "depends on the game".  I believe that certain genres are much better with the potential for character death. But on the flipside, I think some genres would be horrible with the potential for death.

Quite true, and what I left out of my original post, for time, and so I'd have some follow up points to make, is that death isn't entirely of the table, but is in the hands of the players. If a player wanted their character to die, I would facilitate it. In a Paranoia-style game, the death might be just for laughs, but in a more serious game the death might be a sacrifice, a way to stave off the failure because even though the failure wouldn't kill the character, it's a fate worse than death for some reason.

BSSGames wrote:

That said, even with games in which character death is a viable option for failure, I don't think it should ever be the only option.  The biggest problem with death as a consequence of failure is its finality.  There's nowhere to go but creating a new character, unless your game has resurrection, which by its nature, tends to nullify character death as an option.

Well put.

BSSGames wrote:

Another factor that seems to play a part in people's feelings about character death is the amount of time required to create characters in the game.  If it only takes five minutes to make a character, then character death isn't really a big deal.  But if it takes a couple of hours to create a character, I don't think many people welcome the idea of losing that character any time soon.

This is true, but I'm more concerned with the feelings the player has toward the character itself, or about what losing a character implies. Some people are very attached to characters, and would not want them to die in an unsuitable way. That's part of why I put the choice to live (and maybe fail) or die (and maybe still fail, but possibly win and either way be heroic) in the hands of the players. The death can be sad in-game, but a triumphant and fitting end to a beloved character.

And some people take the loss of a character very personally, in a way they wouldn't with other in-game losses. It's tied in with feelings of stupidity, and I'd just as soon avoid any implication of that. A player who chooses death can't claim to be picked on, or cheated, or treated unfairly.

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Re: Taking death off the table

centauri wrote:

And some people take the loss of a character very personally, in a way they wouldn't with other in-game losses. It's tied in with feelings of stupidity, and I'd just as soon avoid any implication of that. A player who chooses death can't claim to be picked on, or cheated, or treated unfairly.

This is the whole reason that I wrote the article. I found (to my surprise as I'm still an little experience GM) that characters can get attached and killing them off or near death causes a lot of emotions.

I use the statement at the beginning of our sessions that explains that death is possible in the game we're running and so it does take the sting out of it and they are more cautious.

I would say it's the game setting and the style of play from the GM.

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Re: Taking death off the table

I know this thread's been dormant for a while but when I read through it I felt I had to give some input. I have to agree with the assertion that death should depend on the tone and difficulty of the game, but I'd also like to point out that death is important because it provides a definite fail state. If players cannot lose there is no real tension in their adventure - victory is certain and the adventure is just a matter of how the players get there. Now I know that the journey is just as important, if not more important, than the destination, but if the players have not really overcome anything then they won't have a real feeling of victory or accomplishment.
Of course, other fail states are possible, like failing a mission in an adventure with an assignment-based structure, and this can even have farther reaching consequences just as death does, but death is important in a lot of games specifically because players are attached to their characters. It gives them a real stake in the story, something to lose just like their character has. I play Shadowrun, and every time my character goes out on a mission her life's on the line and I wouldn't have it any other way. Without the risk of death it wouldn't be a game, just me and my friends writing a mediocre sci-fi novel.

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Re: Taking death off the table

@Luke_Townend,

I really like what you have to say here.

Luke_Townend wrote:

If players cannot lose there is no real tension in their adventure - victory is certain and the adventure is just a matter of how the players get there. Now I know that the journey is just as important, if not more important, than the destination, but if the players have not really overcome anything then they won't have a real feeling of victory or accomplishment.

That was something else I really needed to touch on that not only is the game important, but also the sense of accomplishment and victory so that the players feel fulfilled. I know they are the happiest when they have worked together to take down a big ice dragon or they stop the end of the galaxy.

Great thoughts!

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Re: Taking death off the table

MikeConway wrote:

Not only does it depend on the game, but also on the setting. Some settings and styles require death not to be an option. For Heroes of Oz, in a land where death is impossible, I had to account for that (I threw out the damage track, in this case). In a Saturday Morning Cartoon-type game, death doesn't happen, even thought it can, so you need alternatives there (Cartoon Action Hour from Spectrum Games does this well). Of course, that's not necessarily the case for "The Movie" but that's something else.

I agree. In my campaign people were in a online game where death wasn't the end. Therefore other measures needed to be taken. In other campaigns I took the same idea unless the character was all yea your dead, your not coming back from that. Perma death works to set a kind of mortal mood for the characters and always rests at the back of their mind. Making them think cautiously about their actions. That's what I think anyways.

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