I’ve covered character death on two other occasions. It can be a difficult subject to talk about because for some people a character dying is no big deal, and for others it’s a total anathema. Today, I’m going to tackle the question of why people avoid killing characters even in games that have character death built in as a design feature. I believe there are two types of causes for this phenomenon: Player Causes and Design Causes.
The first big reason I think players avoid killing a character is because of social pressure. Players can sometimes get really invested in their character and the other participants feel that if the characters did die, the player who was using him would rather quit than deal with the consequences. This could be communicated overtly, “Hey, you better not kill my guy…” or covertly, “This is the best character I’ve ever had! I’m having actual fun for the first time…” This can also be communicated through play. If a player “turtles”, or avoids any kind of serious engagement with danger or threatening situations, it probably means the player is not prepared to let his character go. This is understandable and may be part of the group’s Social Contract. If it is part of the group’s mutual understanding, then cool. If it’s not, the group probably needs to have a chat about character death and the role it should play during their sessions.
The second big reason I believe players avoid killing a character is to cover up a mistake or some kind of misunderstanding. For instance, the GM may have thrown too many enemies at them at once or one player didn’t understand what the others were trying to communicate and thus made an illogical choice. Likewise, the system rules may have been improperly used and everyone is just deciding to gloss over it. Avoiding killing the PCs in this situation isn’t a big concern, and it’s pretty common when people are learning a new game for the first time.
The final player cause I’m going to suggest is “over-eager players.” Numerous times I’ve seen players engage their characters in some sort of fight that they could have circumvented using some other means. So instead of getting the gold/loot/information that they wanted, they are facing overwhelming odds in a fight. Imagine a caper RPG where instead of disarming the security system, crawling through the ventilation, and cracking the safe, the players had their characters go into the complex guns blazing, shooting every security guard they meet. Then, by the time they blow up the safe with dynamite, the entire Los Angeles S.W.A.T. team is outside. The players are frozen. They don’t know what to do. The S.W.A.T. team showing up never entered their calculations. So the GM is forced to make a choice: fudge the dice and let them escape somehow or have a TPK (Total Party Kill). Time after time, I have observed GMs fudging the dice to make up for over ambitious players who used their brawn instead of their brains.
None of those reasons above relate to the design of an RPG. However, the next two I’m going to cover do. One HUGE reason I believe players avoid killing characters is because it takes too long to roll up new characters. This is a massive problem, especially since the turn of the century when D20 and DnD4e became the industry standard for how much complexity can or should be crammed into an RPG. When making characters in AD&D1e or 2e, it took relatively little time to roll one up. Choose Race/Class, get 6 Stats, calculate Thac0 and AC, pick spells and a few non-weapon proficiencies then you’re done. Easy, fast, no matter what the level. ODnD was even shorter! In 3e, Pathfinder, and especially in 4e, you’ve got feats, skills, powers, stat bonuses, and a million other options you have to consider. Filling out a level 8 character in the middle of a session takes hours and sidelines the player until the next session. That’s just not fun. As a result, rolls get fudged, players avoid real conflicts, and/or the DM slow-rolls everything so the players have plenty of time to heal their character, gear up and strategize for the next encounter.
It can be tempting as designers to include every awesome idea we generate as we are brainstorming our games. But the increasing layers of rules and mechanics in some games (most notably fantasy and sci-fi games) really starts to rule out character death because Chargen is just so painstakingly long! This phenomenon is called Complexity Creep, and it’s an issue I’ll be dealing with again in the near future. (for a preview, check out these character sheets from OD&D, AD&D2e, and D&D4e and think about which one you’d be least likely to kill as a DM).
Lastly, I believe players avoid killing characters because the game encourages them to become emotionally attached to the character instead of the story. Games can push really important character features at the players like kickers, bangs, destinies, flags, high level play options, godhood, and so on that imply that characters should live long enough to accomplish all these things. If a character has a destiny written on his or her character sheet, it might oblige the other participants to ensure that the player has a shot of making the destiny happen. This might mean slow-rolling encounters, fudging the dice rolls, “nerfing” the bad guys, or whatever else. I mean, who wants to stomp on someone else’s dream, right?
Also, some of these games present players with rather boring options at the beginning of the game but promise much more interesting feats, powers, spells, etc. in later stages of the games. Whether the design uses prerequisites or levels or some other pacing mechanic, players are left wistfully thinking about how cool the game will be “someday.” Thus, they will avoid danger altogether just so they have a chance to get to the good part of the system.
So what can we do about this? If you want character death to be a part of your game, you cannot make the penalty for having a character die be too harsh. Nobody wants to be fiddling with player’s manuals while the rest of the group is having fun. You must also state up-front that death will be part of play.
First, as much as possible, avoid overly detailed and involved character creation systems. If Chargen takes too long, players and GMs will not embrace character death very enthusiastically. Neither will the players. Another option would be to employ a Troupe System during Chargen where the players can create minor characters who can be killed off to increase the tension and drama of the game while preserving the main characters. It can be nice to have backup characters like hirelings or retainers who can step into the void if another character dies. Check out this thread from Story Games to see what I mean.
Second, you as the designer have to communicate very clearly to anyone who reads your rules that the characters stand a good chance of dying each session. That doesn’t mean the character must die, it just means that there is a strong possibility it could happen, and the players should gird themselves for it. You also cannot make promises that the action will get better in the future. Don’t put all the good stuff at level 10 for instance. Don’t design your game so the deep, meaningful part of play can only be established after eight or so sessions. Start off with fun, interesting, and fulfilling characters right off the bat. At the same time, though, relate to the players that they should not be too attached to these characters. Some are going to die. That’s okay; it’s part of the fun.
Third, you can have characters die but not be gone. There’s plenty of work-arounds for that. Resurrection spells with penalties can be given out at any stage in a campaign. Characters’ spirits can mentor another character (a la Obi-wan Kenobi from Star Wars) or haunt another character (a la Six from Battlestar Galactica). They could come back as a zombie, vampire, or other abomination. And I’m sure there are plenty of other cool ideas. Death doesn’t have to be the end, just a transition to a new part of play.