When designing an RPG, the issue of character death always comes up. Some people feel it is a necessary part of design (untrue), while others feel it should be avoided because it is un-fun play (also untrue). It can be hard sometimes to know when to include and when to leave out character death. To my way of thinking, there are only four reasons to include it in your design: 1) it adds to the atmosphere, 2) it increases the stakes, 3) it fulfills the player’s goal, and 4) it escalates the overall conflict/scenario all players are participating in. Let me break them down one by one.
1. It adds to the atmosphere
It certain games, mainly those that explore the setting or situation, character death can be an integral part of play. In fact, character death is expected, and the lack of it will diminish the fun. I am reminded of many Call of Cthullu games I have participated in and read actual play reports about. There was even a really hilarious thread on RPGnet many years back where people posted the most outlandish and fun way their characters died. For this game, at least the way I’ve seen it played, character death is well accepted, and honestly it’s anticipated. The thing that really makes it work, IMO, is the speed of Chargen. I know many CoC players who can draw up a brand new character in 5 to 10 minutes. So when their character dies, they jump right back in during the next scene no biggie. To me, that’s the key for using character death in this way. If your game has a time-intensive character creation and advancement process (imagine recreating a level 15 character in DnD 3.5 from scratch) then I would counsel against using character death to add atmosphere to your game. Three things to remember for this use of death: Frequent, Fast Chargen, Expected.
2. It increases the stakes
In my game, The Holmes and Watson Committee, players have the option to put their character’s life on the line. Choosing to do so grants them an additional bonus, but also makes the situation a lot more crucial. This is an example of character death increasing the Stakes. Sometimes it’s important to put everything you have on the line to accomplish something important. In RPGs, that can mean everything from nabbing the bad guy (like in Holmes and Watson) or saving a town from corruption (like in Dogs in the Vineyard). For designers, using death to increase the stakes means limiting the conditions where a character death is possible. Usually, that means making it a player option of some kind. Choosing that option ought to grant the player beneficial but dangerous bonuses of some kind. Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, and The Holmes and Watson Committee are the best examples I can give you of games that do this. Three things to remember for this use of death: Optional, Bonus, and Lethal.
3. Fulfills a Player’s Goal
Some games have players create a destiny or goal for their character to achieve by the end of play. The death of a beloved character can be a very moving experience. I can easily envision a game that incorporates that fact into the mechanics. The payoff would be the character dies with *something*. For instance, a character could die in redeeming himself. He could die with dignity in a war. He could die saving another person. Or he could die in order to allow another character ascend to a great position. The point of using character death in this way is to allow the player to choose the outcomes, but not necessarily the means of the character’s death. I can see a functional design that allows another player to choose the way a character dies so long as the character’s player gets to choose the conditions leading to and the consequences of that death. Three things to remember: Resolves the Character’s Story, Player Controlled, Consequences.
4. It Escalates the Conflict
Escalating the conflict means that the death of one PC impacts all the other PCs and their enemies in a way that makes the conflict more meaningful. Using character death in this way requires that all players be invested in everyone’s characters in some way or fashion. A dungeon crawl where everyone is out for himself to grab as much loot as possible and then skedaddle is not an effective atmosphere for character death that will escalate the conflict. A game where characters are dependant upon each other or where characters are related to each other in some way (blood, sex, loyalty, duty, etc) is the type of game where the death of one will add meaning to the final victory. In cases like this, character death IMO should still be at the option of the players playing the characters. However, the conditions that the game puts the characters in can make and should make death an attractive option. For instance, if I sacrifice my character, everyone else gains two bonus die and has enough time to rescue the princess from the evil sorcerer. Without my character’s death, the mission might fail. Of course now the sorcerer is really pissed and will take his vengeance out on the whole kingdom. Three things to remember: Sacrifice, Relationship, Meaningful.
In any of the four examples, character death needs to be explicitly mechanically supported by your game. Just including a rule like “When your hit points equal zero, your character dies” is not good enough. What does that death mean? Why might a player want his character to die? What does the character’s player get in return for putting his character’s life on the line? What does everyone else get if he does die? Answering these questions will add a lot of depth and meaning to the death mechanics of your game. Consider them carefully as you design.