Since it’s GURPS day (#GURPSday), I decided to do a double feature on the topic of death.
Death is often the decider of a failed combat in role playing space. When someone swings a lethal weapon at you you’re constantly worried about how much it’ll hurt.
The brave chant, “Today is a good day to die!”
Cowards scream, “I don’t want to die!”
It seems whenever you’re gaming in a system that contains hit points or some quantifiable injury the ultimate test of success is survival. This seems quite a simple conclusion if taken at face value. Yet there’s a social contract that exists at many gaming tables. The contract entails an unsaid promise that the GM will not kill the PC needlessly. This is a great contract for the player. It ensures that all the effort spent on their characters will not be in vain. Other games actually have PCs who are either unstoppable or death is a mild inconvenience.
These situations are fine if the players aren’t constantly thinking about it. Some players, however, quickly learn of the social contract. They might even know that their character has the ability to survive no matter what occurs. When death doesn’t frighten a character, what do you do then?
Death – The Original Nemesis
Since life entered reality death has been it’s ultimate foe. The mystery of it intrigues existentialists and acceptance of it calms the nihilist. Yet at the gaming table it’s hardly as unsettling. Injury may be little more than a heal potion away. Diminishing hit points becomes a routine trip to the street doctor. Sometimes injury is just impossible to place on a character.
When faced with these problems the idea of death becomes laughable. Even in media this situation occurs. At the end of every TV episode things tend to return to normal. Comic book heroes have decades of pages to account for their stories. Even if death is a possibility in media, it’s often greeted with a large story arch to bring out it’s importance. Random injury never really seems to take a character out of play.
This often breeds an OOC disconnect between the character and the player. The player is well aware the character cannot die. The character, on the other hand, has no idea. GMs could just call this “poor role playing” and mete out harsh OOC punishment, but this is rarely ideal. So how do you put the fear of death into a player?
Kill Someone Else
While the GM may not have the ability to kill off the PCs readily, the NPCs are another story. Often times the PCs travel or enter combat with NPC allies. Maybe the danger is to this ally being decimated. Where there’s combat there’s innocent bystanders. What if an innocent comes into harm? Stray bullets and arrows have claimed many. Desperate villains love to hit the PCs where it hurts. They might even go out in a blaze of glory slaughtering helpless NPCs.
These situations can be very real reminders to a PC that death is still there. The PCs might simply be out of it’s reach. They certainly can fail escort objectives if their charge is in danger. They may not be paid by a town if their behavior means the death of citizens. What about the reputation that comes from death around the PC?
NPCs talk and the walls have ears. Getting a negative reaction from death being in your wake can lead to interesting situations. Nobody will want to work with a PC who ends up letting others die. They might even make that very clear with aggressive methods of their own. Slaughtering Orcs is one thing, but a village full of upset farmers?
There is also the ramifications of killing your enemy to deal with. In a fantasy campaign killing off everyone is expected behavior. You don’t stop to ask the morality of slaughtering orcs. Sometimes killing the villain is a bad move. Are PCs pulling punches? Batman is avidly against killing. When killing your enemy is the only way to stop them the challenge of the game might change.
Death Doesn’t Trifle
The GM can take on the roll of Death and inform the PCs they are treading on dangerous ground. The social contract can be revoked as easily as it was made. However, in some settings it can be a plot point that the PCs toy with death’s design.
Constantly escaping death or treating it as a non-issue can be toying with the fabric of destiny. Some entities may not enjoy this behavior. Death might take notice of these individuals who don’t show proper reverence.
The GM can perform the warning in character with these methods. An angel of death making an appearance can chill the bones. I’ve certainly gone down this route in the past and had considerable success. Death needn’t point a finger and slaughter them. Perhaps a bargain can be made. Perhaps Death would like the PCs to pay reparations for their transgressions. Perhaps some being that isn’t Death took notice. They might need immortal PCs for a special job.
Either way, playing with Death is rarely a good idea. Losing might be the last opportunity to play.
A World Without Death
Quite a few stories have combat where not a single individual dies. Maybe they can’t die at all. When gods go to war what is the real risk? Isn’t this the same thought of the PC who knows the GM isn’t going to kill them? Maybe it’s okay that PCs aren’t afraid to die. What options does a GM have then?
Bonk! Time out!
I recall a part of Mekton Zeta RP system outlined a rule for “Bonk”. In this rule individuals would be injured as usual. Damage stopped short of killing the Mek with this rule in place. When a Mek reached 0 HP they would run around crying, screaming, lay as a smoky ruin, have stars circle their heads or anything else that took the character out of play. Uselessness for a PC can be as good as death.
A GM could simply push this into their campaign. The players no longer worry about dying and the GM no longer worries about hit points, but they are going to end up out of the fight. This can make PCs think twice rather swiftly. They certainly won’t want to sit around while the rest of the party plays. They are going to want to stay active in the game no matter what.
In this sense injury puts the PC on time out.
I’m Not Dead Yet!
If the PC may not die, can they be injured?
Recovery rules for injury are very long indeed. Sitting up in a hospital with your character for days, weeks or months certainly isn’t enjoyable. In a race against time this becomes even more problematic. Maybe death doesn’t take it’s full toll. Death still may not have a problem taking down payments.
Medical care can be costly. All that money PCs horde might be going to recovery so often they aren’t making progress. They might even have to spend cash on things preventing the injured state!
Want to Buy Corpse Run!
Everquest allowed a player to live forever. MMOs aren’t in the habit of perma-killing. The social contract states the GM won’t needlessly kill a player or at all. Doesn’t that contract swing both ways? Couldn’t the GM disallow awarded character points to a PC who tested death? What if dying retroactively charged 25 points for extra life?
Your player will be alive, but that -25 point hole that needs filling will take the smile off his face.
Change the Game
When PCs can’t die why make the objective staying alive at all? I touched a bit on killing NPCs but why does it have to stop there?
Objectives and goals failed can be far more detrimental to the role player than losing a life. They are crafting stories after all. Why not keep objectives in combat away from self preservation? Superman has no fear of bullets. He still has the fear of a criminal escaping justice. He still has a problem with dictators enslaving the world. Joker’s poison making the city fall apart laughing still needs batman to undo the mess. If you’re supposed to infiltrate a structure to steal an item, what happens if you set off an alarm?
Reputation and social dynamics are a key too. Maybe failing objectives brings dishonor or detriment in other ways. It’s hard to be a hero taken seriously if you fail at your job. It’s hard to be a criminal if you fail at producing crime. Sometimes the infuriating circumstances of failure are enough to keep games challenging.
Death isn’t always the way to go for a game. Sometimes characters are powerful and shrug at the notion. There’s no harm in revising the classic idea of combat so that death is not the end all failure. This should be the case in a comic book reality. Try different methods that work for you and your players. If all else fails, just talk to them and help them understand how frustrating they are. Sometimes a tap on the shoulder is enough to solve the problem.