So last time I focused on life and using a character’s childhood and key events to shape their skills and backgrounds. This time, I want to focus on death from a few angles. (You can read part 1 here and see the RPG Blog Carnival collection on Life and Death in RPGs here.)

First, death doesn’t just happen to the PC or their fellow party members, but to the NPCs and monsters slain along the journey. Especially in fantasy RPGs, it seems every game I’ve played in we focus on “clearing the dungeon” or “eliminating the threat” – but basically we’re talking about killing critters, monsters, and people who get in our way. It’s just accepted as part of the equation.

Unfortunately, computer roleplaying games (CRPGs) have created an environment where you slaughter in-game monsters wholesale and pick up the loot left behind. There’s no conscience or consciousness of killing because they’re pixels on a monitor or TV screen.

When you play in a good campaign, there are costs associated with death. And for those new gamers who come from the CRPG world, it’s often a harsh reality when the morals, ethics, and laws of the world you’re playing in become relevant. Even forgetting the philosophical aspects of death, there are the practical aspects. Kill someone who tried to kill you and then figure out what to do with the body… Kill more than one ¬†and the problem compounds. Eventually those costs come due in tabletop gaming.

Second, the death of your own character can be an interesting experience. I’ve had it happen so quickly after the character was created that it didn’t register and I’ve had it happen in longer campaigns where it was by choice, going out in a blaze of glory, or by happenstance, where I wasn’t ready to let the character go.

In a Battletech campaign, I went through the trouble of not only creating a character and customizing a ‘mech, but finding a miniature for the campaign. (In my gaming experience, buying a miniature for me tends to mean certain doom for the character.) In the first mission, we were doing a HALO entry to take out some target on the planet. I botched my roll and burned up on entry into the atmosphere. End of character and ‘mech. Thank you very much. As I recall I spent the rest of the night reading in a corner and watching the game roll by in my peripheral vision.

Another time in a “3 million and 1″ D&D 2e campaign (high-level characters constructed with 3,000,001 XP), we ran the campaign for a long time and eventually had to go out in a blaze of glory. We stood atop the battlements with a dwarven archer in plate mail (we called him Tin Can or TC for short), who we Hasted a few times and watched as he mowed down part of the army charging the walls. I don’t specifically recall how my wizard died, but I’m sure it was glorious.

But my favorite death story features a Palladium FRPG campaign. I was playing a mage and my friend was playing a ranger. It was just the two of us against the forces of darkness and we had many amazing adventures (including exploring a bit of the Temple of Elemental Evil). The end came when we were ambushed by a wolfen in the mountains. We tried. But this thing was too good and we were too unlucky. We bled out on that mountain pass and I will forever miss that character.

Sometimes a good PC can get under your skin. The best characters bring out parts of yourself you don’t even know are there until you play them. And when one of those characters dies, it’s like losing a little part of yourself.

Ultimately life and death in RPGs comes down to that factor for me. The goal is to roleplay a character to such a level that it’s a part of you and yet apart from you. Good characters should be easy to slip into, like a pair of old slippers worn for years. And when they die, you should feel something. When your companions die, you should feel something. It doesn’t have to be life altering, but the passion needs to connect you in some ethereal way with your alter ego in game.

Great topic for this month’s RPG Blog Carnival. And a big thanks to Campaign Mastery for hosting!

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This article has 7 comments

  1. Da' Vane Reply

    @Fitz: You had to bring up Zelda RPG, didn’t you – ’tis not good news on that front, but I digress…

    The key is understanding the difference between the video games definition and the RPG industry definition, especially with regards to the limitations of the media.

    A key feature behind Zelda RPG, for example, was being able to take the setting beyond what was seen in the games – of breaking open limits and giving the players freedom. You will never get that in a video game, simply because of the time it takes to create assets for use in the game, as well as changing the source code. You are restricted to what the game provides (although sometimes it can be expanded through a friendly mod community).

    In short, video games are always going to be limited, but they are also controlled. People get lost in freedom. It’s all to easy to get overwhelmed, and when given the opportunity to do absolutely anything, they end up doing nothing. A lack of freedom provides direction and management.

    Take the discussions on railroading, for example – railroading happens all the time, but only ever becomes a problem when the tracks are so obvious and forces the PCs to go where they don’t want to go. It’s never a problem when the tracks are going exactly where the PCs want to go anyway – they will just sit back, enjoy the ride, even though it’s the exact same method.

    This is how video games are designed – they are all railroads, and hopefully the players will spend so much time enjoying the railroads in the directions they want to go, with the limited choices they actually have, they they won’t worry about the fact that they are being railroaded.

    Yet, this is exactly the issue when such players reach RPGs – GMs often fail to realise their players are used to being railroaded, and just set them loose to do whatever. This causes the players to become overwhelmed, often resulting in them doing nothing, waiting for some prompting, to head off looking for tracks, or just randomly doing stuff out of confusion.

    It’s very rare that CRPG players ever get to go through an RPG tutorial or something of that kind that let’s them gently learn what they need to know to make up for the difference in mindsets. That’s basically it – and many RPG players and GMs are too pretentious or prejudiced to have the tolerance to understand, let alone handle, this type of change. Even though this change happens in every shift of mindset from one experience to another, regardless of task. Whether it’s a change of jobs, a change of cultures, or undertaking a new hobby, there will always be a learning period as you mentally adjust from one to another. Unfortunately, when there’s people involved, they don’t always have enough tolerance to allow for such a shift, even though they would expect that they be given time to adjust while making such a shift themselves.
    Da’ Vane´s last blog post ..The Great Plan

  2. Da' Vane Reply

    @Fitz: Indeed – any discussion on what an RPG is in video game definitions basically equates to character advancement similar to the Dungeons and Dragons system as it was 30 years ago. A lot of other advances in the RPG industry are basically ignored in favour for this outdated model, and some people can be quite abusive in their perceptions of what an “RPG” actually is, and regard actual roleplaying games as “masturbatory Pen and Paper sessions” when it comes to things like storyline and setting. It is quite amusing, if somewhat pathetic, really.

    Yet, as much as I am keen to defend the Roleplaying Games hobby from such ignorance, there is some basis in truth here with this assumption. You are dealing with two very different media, with very different constraints, and as such the expectations of a true RPG will most likely never see fruition within a video game, simply because what a true RPG as the RPG industry defines it is choice – the ultimate freedom to go anywhere and do anything, that video games will never be able to compete with.

    Thus you are left with the video games definition, which is fairly apt – because unlike other forms of media, games are all about the interactivity. The setting doesn’t matter as much as the gameplay, and thus knowing whether a game is a first-person shooter, a platformer, an arcade racer, or a roleplaying game is more important than knowing whether it is fantasy, sci-fi, western, or horror.
    Da’ Vane´s last blog post ..The Great Plan

    • Fitz

      @Da’ Vane – Interesting point there. Both sides dismiss the other. We’re all after the same thing – escapism, as you keep pointing out. And whether through computer games of tabletop RPGs, they’re tools we can use to escape. Perhaps it’s less about arguing sides and finding some way we can all get along without bashing each other along the way.

      Computer and console games are locked into particular patterns because that’s what we can program them to do. It’s a heck of a lot easier to tweak a set of rules in a home game of D&D than to tweak anything in World of Warcraft.

      As such each side has pros and cons, neither is perfect, and we should either ignore each other as much as possible or try and work together. Your Zelda RPG is a perfect example of peacefully coexisting. I can think of other games such as Mortal Combat which could have the setting converted into a tabletop RPG (I thought the movies were cool, if a bit cheesy at times). I’m guessing however that licensing prevents folks from doing that and making any money (i.e. the Zelda RPG is free through DVOID).

      But that approach effectively drops the video game definition persay and adapts it as a more traditional RPG.

  3. Da' Vane Reply

    It’s not a nerve, per se. Rather, as someone who is semi-professional in both the roleplaying game and video game industries, I know the divide you are talking about and what causes it. It is not what you think.

    I actually just commented on this in a reply to Part 1, so I won’t repeat myself here. I will just summarise – video games use a different definition of Roleplaying Game than used by that of the Roleplaying Game industry. This is because the Roleplaying Game definition in video games focuses solely on character advancement as a gameplay mechanic (which is how video game genres are defined) as opposed to Roleplaying Games definition of whether there is any actual “roleplaying” involved.

    If you recall the GNS ratings system, all CRPGs are effectively Gamist in the first instance, because it’s the gameplay that defines the genre. However, in RPGs, the focus is rarely on Gamism on it’s own – since Roleplaying itself is defined more by the NS aspect.

    It’s rather like blaming the divide between Poker -> Magic: the Gathering. There are more than a few degrees of separation between those games.
    Da’ Vane´s last blog post ..The Great Plan

    • Fitz

      @Da’ Vane – And I appreciate your informed and considerate opinion on these topics, don’t get me wrong. I’m pondering your last response on part 1 before I jump in again, but it’s tough to ignore an intelligent discussion of roleplaying and the diffs between CRPGs (video games) and tabletop RPGs. :)

      Your comment on the other entry about the odd notion of a computer game being a “roleplaying game” drives your point home. It *is* the same as the gap between any traditional card game vs. Magic. Apples & oranges. Some aspects are the same, but for the most part they’re miles apart.

      I think that’s my biggest worry these days. If someone’s been playing computer games and joins a traditional gaming group, they may (at some level) think they’re functionally equivalent. The differences far outweigh the similarities in my book.

  4. Fitz Reply

    @Da’ Vane – Obviously I struck a nerve here. :)

    Not that I disagree entirely with you, but I’ve been through this repeatedly in the last few years with someone new to the tabletop RPG hobby after learning how to roleplay from CRPGs. Though we repeatedly tried to show, not tell, how to behave in the society portrayed in the campaign we were playing in, we never got through to the player.

    I’m not saying that anyone was “stupid” on either side of the equation, just that the cultural divide of CRPG vs. old school tabletop RPG is sometimes too much to cross for some players. It just didn’t work and that eventually drove me away from the game and led to the downfall of the group. So this is a bit of a sore spot for me as well.

    There are no perfect games. The beauty of gaming however is that it’s a shared experience and the participants get out of it what they put in. If one or more players don’t quite get it or pull their weight, the wheel doesn’t roll right, it wobbles or keeps tilting causing the group to go in circles. The social aspect in small groups sometimes doesn’t react well to voicing objections to particular styles of play. In larger groups typically it’s self-correcting…

    Ultimately… All players and GMs will have to deal with this at some point. We dealt with it poorly and I blame the CRPG -> RPG divide. That’s just my opinion. :)

  5. Da' Vane Reply

    I think your comments about CRPGs leading to devaluing of life in RPGs, especially for newer players, is a gross oversimplification. Rather, it’s more a case that there is normally clear and strict guidance on what can and cannot be killed in a CRPG, which is normally lacking in RPGs. This doesn’t just go with killing however – most issues of morals and ethics are often clear cut and defined in CRPGs in a way that RPGs normally lack.

    The two main features that cause issues – Killing and Looting, which basically represent Murder and Theft. In a CRPG, the most common method of control is simply to not allow the player to commit murder or theft within environments where this is not appropriate – for example, the characters can attack and steal in dungeons, but not in cities. The game’s user interface often specifically represents such things, and allows for exceptions to be specifically highlighted – for example, switching to the combat interface when attacked in a city to show that attacking these foes IS allowed, when normally attacking is prohibited.

    Compare that to RPGs, where such overt control and highlighting mechanisms do not exist. Unless the player themselves have experience with RPGs, they may be tempted to fall back to their previous CRPG roots, which generally show that killing things is the answer. Of course, the GM can easily deprogram players and reprogram them with the expectations for their game within the first few encounters, but that still leaves the first few encounters which may have teething troubles.

    I’ve been through more than my fair share of initial encounters with groups and seen different styles of players. What is often the hardest part is actually finding out how the players actually play, and getting them to actually read the GM and learn without just moaning because of a mismatch between styles and expectations. Like when you have a clever GM with stupid players – and then they wonder why the encounter goes so bad and they nearly die. In short, it’s because they were stupid and missed the hints given by the GM – normally because the gameplay involves a style of thought or thinking the players are not used to, or they have been programmed to expect something else to happen. The fault is equally with the GM, who clearly expected too much from the players, having been unaware of how they had been programmed.

    This is not something that is unique to CRPGs leading to RPGs however. The same can be said of transferring between many different types of RPGs. For example, swapping from D&D to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay can lead to the same issues, since the power levels, lethality of combat, and general style are very different, and the shift takes some getting used to.
    Da’ Vane´s last blog post ..The Great Plan

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