Character Death in RPGs

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Social Contract

& Character Death

in RPGs

Why this subject?

This post has been coming for some time, as it has come up in conversation more times than any other RPG subject over the past year. This post has become one of my longer ones, at +2100 words. 

My impetus for finally getting around to it today, was an acquaintance’s Facebook thread about a game that I am not involved in. In short though, that game is coming to an end after more than 5 years of game time, and the final session has a high chance of character death (the DM warned the players about this, prior to the last session). This has caused a metric shite ton of conversation on their Facebook thread, most of it, thought provoking.

A Disclaimer?

I’ll begin by reminding everyone that the name of the URL for this website is “World of Darkness”, and that I use the byline of “Chronicles By Night – Darker Role Playing Games”. If that doesn’t convey a certain sinister feeling, I’ll spell it out. As a Storyteller/Game Master/Dungeon Master I am interested in games with a mature or dark theme. This is not the place for warm and soothing stories that are within everyone’s taste and comfort zones.

Without attempting to be inflammatory, if you would like to recreate an episode of your typical Saturday morning cartoon, where the good guys always come out on top because the bad guys fought among themselves, and then we do it all again next week, this is not the right place for you. That isn’t the kind of game that I run. I strive for a higher sense of realism, even if it is through darkened lenses. More often than not, my “Villains” are prepared to do some pretty horrific things to achieve their ends. Frankly, the milder ones couldn’t make it into a movie script unless it was at least R rated. 

Least I seem to be a nut who likes sadistic torture scenes, and who’s just out there to offend people or who is shaking his fist against current social trends of political correctness, you’ll have to take my assurance that I’m actually far from it. I am empathetic to people who have emotions/feelings/issues that are ‘triggered’ by certain language. I have friends who are still closeted gay, for fear of rejection by family, and I have friends who have been sexually assaulted and who react to certain scenes in movies or games.

Being empathetic and (I like to think) not a complete idiot, I also realize that the games that I run, and that enjoy running are not for everyone, and even moreso are not to the tastes of all of my gaming friends. I get that. I understand why. I don’t hold that against them. I hope that they don’t hold it against me. Our tastes are different. I like my bad guys to be REALLY evil.

So, with that preamble complete, let’s talk about the Social Contract of RPGs a little.

The Social Contract

Frankly, I dislike the term Social Contract because of its current usage, but the theory been around for three hundred years, so of course it has some baggage. It also best explains the tacit agreement that is arrived between players and a Games Master. I think that it is best if I discuss it, before I discuss Character Death.

Within my games, I try to make the social contract clear near the start. These are the unwritten, but socially accepted rules that we typically agree to when we play. In essence, they are accepted or there is no game.

  • I’m running a game using a specific rules set.
  • I’d like players to be a part of that game.
  • The players expect me, to put a certain level of effort into running the game and telling a story.
    • This includes explaining the theme or tone of the game to the players.
  • The players also expect me to be a reliable resource for most of the rules.
  • The players expect me to be fair and uniform with each of them.
  • The needs of the group will likely come before that of any one member.
  • I expect the players to show up on time at the appointed meeting spot.
  • I expect the players to try to be prepared.
    • This likely means trying to learn to rules.
    • Knowing what abilities/powers/spells their Characters have.
    • Having your dice, character sheets, pencils, etc on-hand.

I’ve sometimes expanded this by saying some of the following in game descriptions:

  • After # of sessions of missing a game without notice, I’m removing your character from play.
  • Nothing drastic will happen to your character if you miss a session.
  • Some variation of, you will (or will not) gain XP when you miss a session.
  • There is always a chance that your character dies.

Within reason, I try not to change the tone or theme of the story greatly once we begin, as the players signed up for a certain theme. It’s not fair to completely switch it out on them, without consulting them.

Likewise, when I change the rules during an ongoing game, I tend to do so because we were misusing the rules as written or after reaching a consensus from the players.  

I’d point any of my readers to my Curse of Strahd game as an example of where I’ve tried to outline the social contract ahead of time via my game ‘blurb’ found here:

Going over it now, as I write the article, I can see that I touch on most of points that I have mentioned above, but not all of them.

Character Death

It is worth noting, this is likely to be the more controversial portion of this post.

First, I would remind everyone of my earlier statement of the types of games that I like, and that I run. Unless I frame a game as being distinctly otherwise, anythign I run is dark, it’s gritty, and it often touches on scenes that leave no shadow of doubt that the “Villain” needs to be put down for good. After all, few would disagree that witches that bake children into Pies/Cakes need to put punished.  

The stakes are high for these Villains. They will not get a second chance at any evil plans if they fail now, and they know it! At no point do I hide that.

Since the Villain knows the stakes are high, he will fight or work with a ferocity that shows their level of determination. That is one part of what makes some of my games more ‘real’ or ‘intense’. The Villain will typically not stand there and Monologue out their diabolical plan while the Player Characters are captured like in a scene out of James Bond. They will attempt to kill or subvert the Players once they become some measure of a threat.

The level of effort that they put into this is somewhat proportional to the level of threat of the Player Characters. Newly embraced Vampires are unlikely to attract the full wrath of a 500 year old Vampire elder. The elder will just send a minion over to ‘show his displeasure by killing some of the players servants’, acting out a double duty of testing the power of the minion at the same time. 

Likewise, the evil Prince who taxes the people to the brink of starvation doesn’t send 1000 Knights after the band of level 4 Player Characters who steal his taxes. He charges his local Sheriff to deal with it, and in turn the Sheriff sends some Men-At-Arms to initially stop the PCs. When the PCs hand the Men-At-Arms their asses, usually by killing them, the Sheriff –MUST- respond with greater force. Otherwise he shows his weakness to the local people, and his Prince! When the PC’s beat the Sheriff, likely by killing him, the evil Prince –MUST- get involved more directly. This could result in the PC’s deposing the evil Prince, or the Prince hiring the best Assassins that money can buy to kill the PCs. [By the way, that’s basically one version of the story of Robin Hood.]

From my own experience running games; defeating a Villain who fights or acts in this fashion is nearly always more rewarding than beating a Saturday Morning Cartoon Villain (that you need to beat again next week). The stakes are elevated. The PCs face death if they fail, just like the Villain.

Stepping back, the concept of what ‘death’ actually means in a tabletop game is somewhat genre/rules specific. Some deaths are more permanent than others, and often that is determined by the mechanics of the system.

Powerful Death Mechanics

  • Character Death in a Vampire the Masquerade game is referred to as FINAL DEATH for a reason. There are no healing magic’s that can bring a Vampire ‘back to life’, they are a corpse or a pile of ash once they lose that final level of health.
  • Basic 1970’s Dungeons and Dragons was also pretty final, and pretty common at the low levels. Certain traps or effects just killed your character outright, without any dice rolls. It was accepted as part of the game.
  • Call of Cthulhu takes character death seriously, but is unabashedly outright in stating that PC death is fairly common. Even when your character doesn’t die, facing the nameless horrors of the unknown, they will likely go mad from the encounter.

Medium Death Mechanics

  • AD&D 2nd Edition made it notably more difficult to kill a non-spellcasting player character. But the system retained saving throws that could lead to a death if one die roll was failed. None the less, magic’s existed that could bring your character back from the dead if they were rich enough.
  • I’m going to throw Champions 4th Edition into the medium slot for death mechanics, as you could build a very ‘breakable’ character. Healing powers did exist, even though they were proportionally more expensive than attack powers.

Weak Death Mechanics

  • FFG Star Wars, is a space Opera and therefore your character is more likely to lose a limb or gain a cool scar than die due to major wounds. Also a character can be brought back from death in a bacta tank of healing fluid if it’s done quickly enough. Sometimes though, that’s not an option due to local equipment.
  • 5th Edition D&D has taken most of the ‘sting’ out of death in my mind. After the first five levels, it’s very hard for a player character to reach the point where they are needing to make death saving throws. Let alone where the PCs need the services of a Cleric to cast Raise Dead or Resurrection on them/their companions. Even when that is the case, those spells are out there and they are economical options to even gold strapped players. This is to an extent that if the Players can find/know a 13th level Cleric, and have 1000G and even a scrap of a dead companion’s body, they can resurrect them with a whole body.

If you wish to avoid player character death, you should avoid certain systems where the mechanics highly favor it. Likewise, even if you were not explicitly told that it was possible, ask the GM if character death is a possibility. If you don’t ask, presume it is. Frankly it’s built into every RPG system that I know of.

Also, I would suggest that your Character take the same precautions that a self-aware, character would.

  • In D&D5E, have a patron deity, and don’t wait until you casually meet one. Go out there and make friends with a powerful Cleric of a good aligned god.
  • In Vampire, hire minions to do the fighting for you. Stay out of combat.
  • In Star Wars, always be within evacuation range of a bacta tank and on a ship with multiple main characters.
  • In Champions, travel with a Medic, or wear some kind of armor.
  • In Cthulhu… okay if you don’t like the threat of character death, don’t play it.

The Inevitable

As final words of advice, we’re talking about a Game. A game that you can become heavily invested in, but it is a game none the less. If you play long enough Character deaths WILL happen.

The loss of a character can and likely will be a traumatic or moving experience. I’ve been there as a player, and I’ve willingly walked my character into a certain death situation because “That is what he would do.”

While the loss stung, and it brought tears to my eyes, I’ve found great joy in other characters since then.

If you find yourself in situation where the idea of losing your character seems unbearable to you, do yourself, your GM and the rest of your gaming group an immense service. Go and talk to your GM in private well in advance of your next session.

“Safely” retire the character, and let them become a part of the story’s background. This is a far happier alternative to the sleepless nights and vicious words that can occur with an unexpected character death when you are deeply attached. This way, the character can “live on” and you can begin a new chapter in your gaming journey.

As an aside: If I had a dollar for every time I’m warned players that Combat in World of Darkness games was a terrible idea, I’d be typing this on a 30” 4K monitor!



Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: