How to Defeat the Empty Page
Far be it from me to presume that I know anything more than anybody else…
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!